Freeing the new working class majority

BY:Roberta Wood| June 6, 2017
Freeing the new working class majority

How should Communists respond to the new political realities our working class faces? Today workers really are “the 99 percent.” What is keeping our class from leveraging that new majority? How do we deal with the re-entry of open white supremacy into the political mainstream; a historic attack on civil rights, women’s rights, and organized labor; and an emboldened far-right movement which has had some success in sinking roots into our class?

We, as Communists, are faced with the dual challenge of determining how we will use our participation to help build and orient the resistance to the Trump regime and of charting our own organization’s path forward.

Fortunately, our Party has a history of using limited resources to make big change.

At our founding in 1919, much of our membership consisted of small and politically isolated nationality groups (Finns, Lithuanians, Eastern European Jews, etc), a small but important grouping of Caribbean immigrants, plus a small number of African Americans, along with a few U.S.-born radical trade unionists.

Most of the labor movement at the time was under right-wing leadership and excluded black, Asian and Indian and women workers.  Communists, socialists, anarchists, and militant union organizers had to do much of their work in secret to avoid imprisonment, deportation or even assassination.

Under these daunting conditions, the Party had to leverage what it had to unite and move the entire working class.

And we did.

The Party and the communities it influenced focused their efforts on organizing industrial workers.  While wage workers made up only a little over half of the nation’s workforce, most of them were employed in the industrial sector, which was growing at that time.  That emerging working class included immigrants from many countries and thousands of African American workers who left the south during what was called the Great Migration. Thus, our class became increasingly multi-national and multi-racial.


History of focus on industrial workers is relevant today

Within the industrial sector, communists focused on organizing four key industries: steel, auto, transport, and electrical.  Those workers made up only a fraction of the working class, but a few factors allowed them to punch above their weight:  they worked cooperatively, in massive plants; their labor produced enormous wealth; they came face to face with capitalist exploitation every day in the workplace; and due to their strategic place in the economy, they had the potential to stop the generation of profit.

In addition to identifying the strategic sector of the working class, the Communist Party was also able to identify the key issues for class unity.

The experience and inspiration of the world communist movement helped us see that racism was the biggest one.  Communists  recognized that the fight against racism was central to class struggle, not a side issue or distraction.  We realized that we couldn’t wait for a revolution to take on racism, because a racially divided working class could never achieve a revolution. So, even in the throes of the Depression, we projected a vision of the working class as powerful and united worldwide in solidarity, rather than desperate, divided, and fighting internally.

Communists also projected the vision of the working class as a world-wide class. Therefore, we opposed wars between capitalists countries that pitted the working class of one nation against that of another. Communists opposed imperialist wars that had workers killing other workers on the battlefield.   


Bold ideas draw mass support

Early American communists put forth bold ideas that drew mass support and became part of the political mainstream.

We made the fight for equality an issue for the whole working class, including white workers—like when workers on CIO picket lines carried signs demanding freedom for victims of racial persecution like Angelo Herndon or the Scottsboro Nine.

We advocated a new structure for unions to correspond to changing workplaces –  industrial unionism, which unites all workers in a workplace into one union. The previous model, craft unionism, kept workers divided against each other into dozens of separate unions.

Communist union leaders like William Z. Foster worked tirelessly to convince progressive trade unionists to work within existing unions, no matter how backward the policies of those unions might be. Foster knew that a well-meaning but wrong-headed policy of “dual unions” isolated the most progressive unionists and  abandoned the bulk of the workers to rightwing misleadership.

Early communists advanced Marxist slogans, like “Labor creates all wealth,” that are now shared by most trade unionists.

Communists didn’t just identify the issues—we set out a strategy to make them political realities. We pushed radical ideas like Social Security, unemployment compensation (paying people for not working!), and welfare.  No one in 1930 thought these things were winnable—except us.

Today even we sometimes overlook the immense contribution our Party made, because so many of our ideas are now part of accepted wisdom—not just on the left, but among broad sections of the working class.


Dramatic changes in the U.S. working class

So, where do we stand today?

In 1930, the working class (wage workers) was a little over half the population of the United States.  Most of the rest of Americans were farmers, sharecroppers, small business owners, and professionals.  

Since then, we’ve undergone a change at least as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution.  Production has been reshaped by automation and new communication technologies.  And the working class has changed, too.

Today, wage earners make up 90 percent of our population.  Most professionals and technicians, including doctors and engineers, no longer participate in the economy as small business people; they have by and large become wage employees.  Corporate agriculture has replaced small farms, so most farm labor is now wage work, too (if you can call the miserable amount farmworkers get paid a wage).

Unemployed people, who are kept jobless to drum up competition between workers and keep wages down, are part of the working class.  So is the prison population, which works for slave wages.

The working class now includes the vast majority of people in our country.  It could play a more powerful role than ever. That’s why it’s important for us to take the lead in opposing  the capitalist class’s ideological campaign to define so many Americans OUT of the working class.

Despite the massive growth of the working class, the popular perception is that the working class is shrinking.  Shockingly we’ve moved back to a place where the term “working class” conjures up an image of old, white men.  [Author’s note: I like old white men.  I’m married to one.  But when it comes to working class old white men, they look better in their natural setting: among our diverse, multiracial, multigenerational working class.

We have a big job to do.  We have to redefine–for the Party, for the Left, and for the working class itself–what the working class is and what role it has to play in the fight for change.  This means picking up a discussion we started before our our party’s last  National Convention, in 2014.

Labor is still the source of all wealth.  The working class still creates all value.   But that looks different now than it did in the past.

The working class now includes 13 million undocumented workers, who face special insecurity and exploitation because of their immigration status.  It also includes the millions who perform labor in our prison system (for wages so low, and under such compulsion, that it’s essentially slavery).  And the tens of millions of unemployed, partially employed, temporarily employed.

We often hear talk of how we live in a “post-industrial” society, where manufacturing no longer plays a significant role.  But that’s only partially true.  Manufacturing is still the largest sector of the U.S. economy in terms of output.   The problem is that those factories employ fewer and fewer workers.  Today, U.S. manufacturing produces four times as much as it did in 1980, but with a quarter of the workforce. A robot can replace four assembly line workers, and a single tech worker can program and service a dozen robots.


New industries shape a new workforce

New industries, producing new goods and services, have emerged.  Call centers, health care workers, retail and fast food have seen huge job growth, but most of those jobs are low-wage jobs. For example, highly paid landline phone workers have been replaced by low-wage cell phone workers; union meat cutters have been replaced by underpaid fast food and retail workers.

In the past few years, the “gig economy” has come into its own, as well: companies like Uber that use temporary labor to provide on-demand services.  Because workers use their own cars, phones, and computers, and draw a wage only when their labor is necessary, companies can generate significant profits with a small capital outlay. The means of production that these companies own and control is the technology.

Organized labor is less nimble than capital in following changes in industry.  Often, people speak about “the decline of the working class” when what they mean is the shrinking share of the workforce in labor unions. Workers have NOT quit unions. Surveys show vast majority of workers wish they could be in one. What has happened is that the jobs in unions represented by unions have drastically declined while anti-labor policies have made it nearly impossible to for workers in the new sectors to join unions.

In any case, while the labor movement is a critical force within the working class, it is not the same as the working class.

The working class, which includes all wage earners, now represents the vast majority of the population of the United States.  As such, it occupies a historically new and potentially much more powerful position.


Working class unity and the fascist threat

We have to win not just a section of the working class, not even a majority of the working class, but the whole working class.  We need to unite all workers around the idea that an injury to one, is an injury to all. Why?

First of all, because that’s our job.  As Marx and Engels say in the Communist Manifesto, “Communists have no interests except for those of the whole working class.”

But also because we are faced with an unprecedented fascist danger, where “the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary section of the ruling class” looms on the horizon.

Fascism doesn’t require a majority for it to come to power, but it does require a mass base.  There aren’t nearly enough finance capitalists, oil barons, and real estate billionaires to accomplish a fascist takeover.  They need to pull in support from elsewhere to seize power.  For the most part, the mass base for fascism develops in what Marxists traditionally call the “petty bourgeoisie.” I like to use English terms whenever possible. Petty bourgeoisie is a French term for small capitalists, or as we might say, small businessmen.

There are millions of small businesses in the United States.  Many workers move back and forth between being wage-earners and being small business owners.  Others, especially better-paid workers, may also own a small business and have a foot in both camps.  Thus, big chunks of the working class are exposed to ideological pressures from the small business mentality. They are especially susceptible to the anti-government, anti-regulation, “cut people’s services” ideas that proliferate in these circles.

The small business mentality often fosters  a divisive vision of the working class.  In this vision, working class people are seen as uneducated, backward, and bigoted, mired in racism and incapable of thinking beyond economic concerns.  Most of all, they are portrayed as losers, them and their children: the ones who didn’t, or couldn’t, make it.

We have to counter this narrative with one of our own.  Our narrative must address workers’ anger and resentment at the loss of good-paying jobs, but it also has to move beyond that.  We need a vision, and a story, that engenders self-respect and pride at being a member of our diverse working class.  We need to remind workers that they are what we, as Marxists, know them to be:  the fundamental motor of social progress, creators of all wealth, and the only force that can carry the fight for democracy all the way to its conclusion.


Old slogans and new realities

Words are important. They help shape our thinking and as new realities come forth, we need to update our vocabulary. Let’s look at the slogans we’ve used reflexively to express our goal of unity:  “united front,” “popular front,” “labor-led people’s coalition,” “left-center unity,” “unity against the ultra-right,” “multi-class alliance”… We’re going to have to rethink some of them, to make sure that they’re not getting in the way of working class unity.

For one thing, I think we should retire the term “labor-led people’s coalition”–not to diminish the role of organized labor, but because it misses the point of a movement led by the whole working class.

And when we say “left-center unity,” it’s not clear what arena we are talking about. Are we looking for left-center unity of the working class? No!  We’re not looking to unite one part of our class against another part.  We can’t accept part of the working class being under right-wing leadership, and thus part of the mass base for fascism.

In the same vein, our notion of “unity against the ultra-right” also needs to be sharpened.  We need to specify the class nature of the ultra-right, and of fascism: “the most reactionary section of the capitalist class…”  Otherwise, it sounds like we’re lumping part of the working class (those who follow the leadership of the ultra-right) in with the ruling class, as part of the problem rather than the solution.  What we actually mean is unity of the working class and people’s movement against the ultra-right elements of the capitalist class.

Finally, we have to be careful how we talk about “multi-class alliances.”

First of all, it sounds a lot like some of the ways we describe the working class:  multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-generational…  If we’re not careful, we risk glossing over an important difference.

The term “multi-class” makes it sound like that are a whole range of classes in our country today.  In reality, there are only three:  the working class, small business owners, and capitalists. It dilutes our vision of a broad, all-encompassing working class to suggest that some workers may actually be part of another class, with other interests.

When we talk about a multi-class alliance, we aren’t talking about an alliance of the working class with the capitalist class against some other force.  We are calling for a tactical alliance between the working class and some section of the capitalist class–whichever fragment of that class shares our short-term goals.  The term “multi-class alliance” doesn’t make it clear that this is a tactic to take advantage of divisions in the ruling class, not a strategy, and that the parts of capitalist class that we ally with may change.

Finally, we hear a lot of talk about “neoliberalism,” a term used by academics and economists. This is a very confusing term for most Americans. In everyday conversation, we only hear the term “liberal”  to indicate the left end of the political spectrum. “Neoliberalism” has nothing to do with what most Americans think of as liberalism. Neoliberals are pro-corporate forces that call for cutting back on the living standards of people, privatization of public property, trade policies that favor big multinational corporations and cutting government spending on people programs like education and health care. Can we come up with a common language expression for this 100 percent pro-big business and anti-worker program?


A working class strategy today

So, if we agree that we need a strategy to win the whole working class, where do we go?

Clearly, industrial concentration as it was originally envisioned in the middle of the last century, does not suffice. Production today is not dominated by huge plants with thousands of workers.  Organized labor continues to play a vital role because of its power, resources, and leverage, but it can’t be our only focus.

Should we focus on tech workers, since they control a “choke point” in production?

Or perhaps focus on bringing a new sector, like low-wage fast food and retail workers, into organized labor, to swell its ranks and build its strength?

Or maybe an issue-based approach, such as uniting people affected by the green energy revolution.  That could bring together mine and utility workers along with environmental and Native rights activists.

Is it around a political struggle, like a job-creating infrastructure program, or around a demographic, like young workers?

Or should we focus on a geographical area?

I’m not really satisfied with any of these, and in any case, these aren’t questions we can answer in a small committee, or even in a big meeting of the Party or in a broad coalition of activists.

What I’ve tried to do is synthesize my experience as a worker, drawing on conversations I’ve had over many years, and I would encourage you to do the same.  Take these issues to work.  Think about them there.  LISTEN to your co-workers.

LISTEN to your co-workers, and test these ideas against what you hear from them.

And talk about the ideas, too, with other workers.  There’s nothing in our discussion of strategy and tactics that you shouldn’t be able to discuss in your workplace, whatever it is.  Can you explain this stuff in a way that is engaging and accessible?  Do we have the vocabulary in plain English? Can you bring people into the discussion?  If not, we need to work on it more.  That’s what Marxism is about. It’s still true what Georgi Dimitrov, the great anti-Nazi fighter, urged 80 years ago: to make sure that our ideas are “the property of the masses.”

Image: State Farm call center, made available by State Farm through Creative Commons



    Roberta Wood, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party, is a retired journeyman industrial instrument mechanic. A lifelong union activist, she was a founding co-chair of the United Steelworkers District 31 Women's Caucus. She writes on labor issues for A Chicagoan, Roberta is married to Steelworker retiree Scott Marshall. Scott and Roberta have four daughters and seven grandchildren.

Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer