NPC April Meeting Roundtable: The Labor Question – Democratic Socialists of America

In April the National Political Committee (NPC) of DSA initiated a discussion of labor and the economy. This is one of DSA’s priority issues, but had not been discussed at an NPC meeting. Particularly considering the newly re-formed Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, the NPC felt that an initial discussion of labor issues would be helpful in guiding our work.

This follow up discussion organized by NPC Member and DSA blog editor RL Stephens is another step moving things forward. Four members of the NPC – Chris Maisano, Zac Echola, RL Stephens, and me – made opening remarks to start the discussion off, followed by comments from other NPC members. What follows is synopsis of some of the points that I touched on. My comments focus on three of the questions.

  • What do we mean when we talk about “the working class?”

Over the last year there has been a lot of discussion about ‘the working class’ both within DSA and in the larger political world. In the political world, there have been magazine articles and books about the white working class, often asking how the Democratic Party can win them back. In these discussions working class is often posed against middle class, thus basing class distinctions solely on income.

We can define working class as people who cannot survive without selling their skills, talents, time to someone else.  This is not based on income but about on the person’s having to sell their talents to make a living. Some members of the working class today may exercise some limited supervisory power.  By this definition the working class includes most of the US population (about 80%). It is not limited to workers who are employed in profit making enterprises. Some on the left want to limit the definition to workers who produce surplus value, but this would exclude, for example, most teachers.

  • How has the working class changed over the last 100 years (presumably US)?

Perhaps the biggest change is who is in the waged labor force.  In 1920 around 20% of the waged labor was women; today it is almost half. In 1915 about 1 in 4 workers were employed in manufacturing, another 1 in 8 in transportation and utilities and almost 1 in 10 in domestic service – in sum, over half of all employed people, with agricultural work accounting for much of the rest.  In contrast, in 2015 manufacturing represented less than 1 in 10 workers and transportation and utilities less than 1 in 25. Professional services and wholesale and retail trade together are over half of the working population. Governmental services (like teachers and firefighters) are almost 1 in 10.

  • Issues facing the working class and organizers today.

In addition to organizing rank and file workers, DSA can support worker strikes and actions, as in West Virginia and Oklahoma. Other issues may also provide important opportunities such as the Fight for $15. It has its widest impact in segments like housework occupations that are disproportionately female, especially women of color, and immigrants.  

We also need to develop strategies around the expansion of the social wage into areas like child and elder care, maternity and paternity leave, etc. Austin DSA’s work on family and medical leave is an example of that.

  • In developing a strategy on labor how do issues of class intersect with race and gender?

As noted above one significant change in the US workforce is the entrance into it of women. Today nearly half of workers are women. Women make of the majority of the workforce in several areas, for example:

  • Registered nurses  91.1 %
  • Elementary and middle school teachers  81.8%
  • Medical and health services managers  72.5%
  • Psychologists  66.7%
  • Tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents  66.1%
  • Education administrators  63.0%

Note that the top two categories – nurses and teachers – are among the constituencies most important in DSA’s priorities. Among the lowest paid occupations, such as food service workers, cashiers, maid, women are the vast majority. Similar data comparing people of color to white workers also clearly shows that people of color experience higher unemployment and lower wages.

This demonstrates that our priority work on labor, and our other priority programs, has to be intersectional in nature, and beyond that socialist feminist in perspective. In our organizing, our online image, in all of our work we need to make sure that we do not reduce everything to class in a way that ignores the situation of women and people of color in our society.

Chris Riddiough is the DSA National Steering Committee Chair, a member of the Medicare for All Steering Committee, and a member of Metro DC DSA

Because it is the most dominant labor strategy in DSA, we should examine “rank and file” as a method to seize the means of production. I’ve had really productive conversations with members of Solidarity about this strategy. It’s a strategy with a set of targets and goals to campaign toward. But with that being said, the end game of rank-and-file strategy remains vague, as well. I don’t think collective bargaining is a viable path to revolution. We’re not going to sign an agreement that says we get the means of production. So while the strategy could do significant work create worker militancy, I’m not sure that the union itself is the correct vehicle to target. Furthermore, from an eco-socialist lens, I’m not even sure that production itself (regardless of who controls the means) will save us from ecological disaster caused by human production.

Secondly, rank and file strategy has a tendency to focus on union infrastructure and inside baseball in that many of its adherents tend to be inwardly focused on capturing the dwindling resources of unions. However, most of our members aren’t in unions, “business” or otherwise, and even of our members who are rank and file union, our relationship to the power structures within those unions is practically nil. So if we truly believe that wage work is the lynchpin to we must pull on the system of capitalism, then we’re precisely missing the massively biggest segment of the American workforce.

Because of these reasons, I disagree about whether or not a realignment of “business unionism” has actually occurred or will ever occur under the entryist “rank and file strategy.” I’m not willing to say it’s a dead end, but DSA ought to explore alternatives, particularly ones in better sync with our membership and our real power.

We should also be more imaginative about labor itself. I think we can root our strategy in a new economy altogether rather than only focus on labor as it relates to the capitalist enterprise. As a whole, the proletariat could seize what resources it can and use what resources it has so that it can abolish the working class itself. The abolition of capitalism is fundamentally the abolition of the working class. On a practical level, what I mean by this is that if we start to not only imagine but enact upon systems that do not exploit labor, we can directly and proactively remove ourselves from the capitalist system today instead of just sitting around talking about doing it. We can also properly orient ourselves to our real relationship to power.

Because creating democratic institutions isn’t enough. We must clearly demarcate our values and continually fight for those values. How do we build an economy that coheres surplus populations across divisions? There’s more value in discovering emergent labor strategies through interaction with our members than there is in simply picking up an old strategy or two off the shelf.

Zac Echola is on the DSA National Steering Committee, and a member of DSA Red River Valley

Pep Guardiola is perhaps the world’s preeminent soccer coach. Modernizing playing concepts often attributed to Dutch total football, Guardiola’s strategy specializes in manipulating space. When in possession of the ball, Guardiola’s teams pull the defending opposition out of position, allowing Guardiola’s squads to take the initiative, meaning that it is the offense and not the defense that sets the terms of the struggle. For Guardiola, “The objective is to move the opponent, not the ball.” It’s difficult to succeed against a set defense. By taking the initiative and moving the opposition, Guardiola’s teams can attack vacant space or scrambling defenders, thus producing high-quality shots on goal.

The question for socialists is how do we take the initiative?

Socialism needs to be creative, forward-looking, and think big on questions of labor and production. We need to take the initiative and not allow the defense–that is, capitalist power–dictate the terms of struggle. At the last meeting I brought up two big ideas:

  • DSA should explore a struggle to make the infrastructure of the internet a public utility and put it under the aegis of the Post Office (and postal banking).
  • DSA should explore parental leave as a means of transforming labor in the domestic sphere

Socialism has to address questions of labor and productivity for the whole society, and civic institutions and social reproduction are key variables to engage. Parental leave and banking/internet infrastructure as public utilities under the Post Office are good starts.

The U.S. Post Office matters both as an economic engine, and as a sphere of civic life allowing for the transfer of thoughts and relationships across the country. The privatization of postal service in this country has long been a crisis, and instead of looking at that privatization simply as a rank and file organizing opportunity, we should adopt a more holistic position that takes into account matters of civic space and public life.

Additionally, labor in the domestic sphere is a site of social reproduction necessary for the perpetuation of capitalist exploitation. By changing the terms of labor in the domestic sphere, one way being parental leave, we can radically alter gender subordination domestically and in the workplace. 

In addition to being creative, we also need to better understand what capitalists are saying and doing. For example, how do we deal with labor and productivity in the age of subcontracting? It’s not just Uber. Nike doesn’t make shoes; it owns no factories for the manufacturing of its apparel. Nike subcontracts all of its manufacturing to over 700 factories in at least 42 countries. In this context shipping becomes a key cog in the productive process, and it is for this reason that some argue for the focus on distribution networks in the U.S. as a key sector for organizing.

However, the surge of productivity and efficiency in business has also meant record numbers of working-age people outside of the labor force altogether, millions of people. Class struggle under capitalism is not just for the workers “at the point of production,” it is for all people who are dispossessed of the means of production–whether they’re employed or not. Socialism needs to engage these populations.

What is special about unions isn’t that they’re made up of workers, it’s that at their best they serve as a vehicle for people taking collective power. But unionism is not the only entry point to class struggle, and it’s certainly not the only pathway to socialism.

Today, there are 14.8 million union members in the United States and the union membership rate is less than 10% in half the country, and less than 5% in most of the South. If we don’t include the public sector, the union membership rate is 6.5% nationwide. In the immediate aftermath of World War II workers attempted to use strikes to defend and build upon gains made in war time. The capitalists retaliated with the Taft-Hartley Act and severely restricted the ability of union structures to serve as vehicles for class struggle. We are in an even more dire situation today.

Unions failed to get card check neutrality under President Obama, and with the Janus decision looming it is entirely possible that the ability to form unions and collectively bargain under the existing regulatory model may be in terminal decline. It is not that this front should be abandoned. We should support the forces contesting the capitalist onslaught against unionized workers, including those pursuing the Rank & File Strategy. However to reduce issues of labor and productivity to the union sphere, and particularly to a conflict with staffers, is to operate within the limits imposed by capital where it is best situated to neutralize opposition. 

Finding ways to build new civic space and public infrastructure, reordering the terms of social reproduction, and emphasizing creating vehicles for power among the dispossessed rather than just the employed are all crucial steps for socialism in this century. Though the union movement should not be abandoned, and we should support everyone doing valiant work in that domain, socialism needs to also switch the play over to spheres where the defense–capitalist power–is less set if we are to lead a transformation of the whole society.

R.L. Stephens is an NPC member and Editor-in-Chief of the DSA blog.