Convention Discussion: Contingent workers and the reserve army of labor

BY:Norman Markowitz| March 16, 2019

 Question of the week: 
How have changes in capitalist production shifted the composition and organization of the 
workforce, and the working class as a whole? What have trends like automation, 
uberization, and online collaboration meant for the participation and status of women in the 
workforce? Of youth?


The composition or strata of the working class is constantly changing as capitalism develops new expensive technologies and seeks to pay for them by deskilling and discarding more and more workers.

But the working class itself in its relationship to the capitalist class does not change. The working class consists of all wage and salaried employees although upper managerial and to a lesser extent middle managerial employees are given incentives often to supervise the exploitation of the overwhelming majority of workers and employees.

In the past, socialists and communists emphasized manual workers and sought to organize at the point of production in workshops and mills and factories. That was even after WWI too narrow an approach. But the argument that those who came to call themselves “neo-Marxists” or a New Left in the 1950s and 1960s, that there was a “new working class” whose vanguard was technical and professional employees at the top and largely minority and female service workers at the bottom, one that dismissed the traditional craft and industrial workers who at the time were heavily unionized, as having been bought off by the capitalist class and now a conservative force in society, was also very wrong. Arguments like that continue to spring up today.

We can say that there are many more technical and professional workers but they are thanks to outsourcing and downsizing far less secure than ever before, just as there was a large reserve army of labor, of the unemployed and the underemployed which capitalists used to divide workers and break strikes in the period that saw the rise of the mass production industries and global transportation distribution systems, there is also a large reserve army of such technical and professional employees, a precariously employed class called now by many a “precariate”

Just as there were significant differences in income among the various strata of workers during the rise of mass production industrial capitalism, differences which translated in the food that different strata of workers ate, whether or not their children had to work to bring in subsistence income, and the kind of housing that they could afford, the differences are there today, with large numbers of workers in effect defined as independent contractors, without health care, pension and other benefits and having to use their own facilities to do the work for the companies which pay them.

Let me conclude that we must and we can develop new tactics to advance our traditional strategy, which is organize and unionize these different strata of workers, work to educate them about their common class interests, offer them through class conscious organization a path to security, which even those in the better paid strata do not have, and as Communists work to transform their class consciousness into a socialist consciousness, meaning a consciousness that whatever gains one strata may make at the expense of another will always be temporary and that as long as the economic and political power is in the hands of capitalists even the most advanced reforms in terms of workers rights and social welfare policies will be subject to repeal.


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