In Search of Workers’ Power

Since the 1980s, various economists, academics, and other mainstream commentators have posited that the United States is undergoing a process of “deindustrialization” stemming from the offshoring and downsizing of domestic manufacturing employment.[1] While many Marxists and other radicals have long subscribed to versions of this theory, the “deindustrialization” thesis appears to have become increasingly widespread among Leftists in the years since the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008.

This said, in most cases over the past several years, radicals have shied away from providing detailed expositions of this theory or its implications. The reason for this is obvious: If it’s true that the United States is becoming “deindustrialized,” then this does not bode well for the prospect of building workers’ power during the current period.[2] After all, throughout the history of the twentieth century, workers employed in manufacturing and related industries played a vanguard role within the broader labor movement – a function that stemmed (and stems) from their strategic position at the heart of the capitalist production process. Indeed, to this day, no other segment of the working class produces as much surplus labor value or possesses as much power at the point of production as manufacturing workers.

Tobacco workers celebrate en masse outside a R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the culmination of a successful 1947 strike. As recounted in Robert Korstad's excellent 2003 book, Civil Rights Unionism, the triumphant 1947 Reynolds strike was waged with the backing of the workers militant, CIO-affiliated union -- Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers union. (Photograph from the Digital Forsyth archives)

Tobacco workers celebrate en masse outside a R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the culmination of a successful 1947 strike. (Photograph from the Digital Forsyth archives)

As a result of these troubling implications, in recent years, the “deindustrialization” thesis has remained a tacit assumption within much of the U.S. Left — particularly the Marxist Left. To the extent that radical authors have presented versions of this thesis in their published writings over the past few years, they’ve mostly tended to do so in passing while discussing other subjects. One example of this comes from a recent essay by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member Erik Forman, included in the superb 2014 collection New Forms of Worker Organization.[3] On a general level, Forman’s essay tells the inspiring story of the militant workers’ resistance movement spearheaded by the IWW-affiliated Jimmy John’s Workers Union (JJWU) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As Forman details, beginning around 2007, pro-union fast food workers waged a protracted, multi-year struggle to organize and build workplace resistance to management at a Minneapolis-area Jimmy John’s franchise chain that employed around 200 workers. This struggle – in which Forman played an active role as a rank-and-file delivery worker – culminated in October 2010 when the JJWU narrowly lost an NLRB election at the Minneapolis franchise.[4]

Notably, in the essay, Forman never actually uses the term “deindustrialization,” but he does touch on this concept as part of a short section analyzing the current state and recent history of the U.S. economy and class struggle — a passage that provides context to Forman’s primary narrative about the JJWU and organizing at Jimmy John’s. To summarize in brief, in this section, Forman observes that, over the past several decades, ongoing decline in U.S. manufacturing employment has gone hand-in-hand with a dramatic expansion of what official sources term the service-sector industry. As Forman notes, however, this overly-broad category obscures a fundamental class division within the service-sector workforce. At the top echelon of the sector, the highest-earning portion of service employees consists of well-paid corporate functionaries and bureaucrats. Below them, meanwhile, the vast majority of service employees are low-wage menial workers employed in restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and any number of other establishments. The social function of these workers is, essentially, to do the drudgery needed to sustain the cushy, socially-parasitic lives of the corporate class.

It’s worth quoting from this particular passage in detail to get a sense of Forman’s understanding of the contemporary U.S. economy:

Despite a world of difference, jobs at both the top and bottom of the office park towers are typically lumped together as ‘services,’ a catch-all category that absorbs more than 70-percent of the workforce in the United States and other highly industrialized countries. However, the use of the blanket term “service sector” papers over a much more profound trend – the bifurcation of employment in the United States into a small number of fill-time, high-wage service jobs in various areas of corporate administration, and the cancerous growth of a vast low-wage service sector staffed by an army of wage slaves who are bound to these dead-end, meaningless jobs by mountains of debt.

The rise of the low-wage service sector is tied directly to the decline of higher-wage, largely unionized industrial employment in the 1970s, when the dislocation of workers through and the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce provided a labor force ready to work for low wages – and because of their low wages and long hours, ready to buy cheap food. Seeing a new opportunity to profit while returns on traditional investments lagged, capitalists began pouring money into a ballooning low-wage service sector. The number of fast food restaurants exploded from the late 1960s to the 1970s. McDonald’s grew from 710 outlets in 1965 to more than 3,000 by 1977. In a clear sign of the times, by 1982 McDonald’s employed more than twice as many workers than US Steel.[5]

This narrative is, by and large, undeniably true. To begin with, as someone that has worked for years in the service sector, I can all too readily testify to the unbearable lot of the “army of [service-sector] wage slaves who are bound to these dead-end, meaningless jobs by mountains of debt.”

Beyond this, on a strictly empirical level, it’s also undeniably true that the United States has witnessed a precipitous decline in manufacturing employment since the late 1970s. Indeed, by 2009, the U.S. manufacturing industry employed around 6.1 million fewer production workers than it did thirty earlier in 1979, the historical highpoint for U.S. manufacturing employment. What’s more, during the Great Recession, this trend of decline in manufacturing accelerated rapidly as a result of a devastating wave of plant closures and downsizings. Between 2008 and 2010 alone, the United States shed some 1.6 million production jobs in this sector.[6]

But despite this protracted period of decline, it needs to be emphasized that the manufacturing industry still comprises a central part of the overall domestic economy. Indeed, as of January 2015, manufacturing employees still comprised just under nine percent of the total nonfarm workforce.[7] What’s more, as Kim Moody and Charlie Post point out in a recent article in Socialist Register 2015, despite overall losses in manufacturing jobs over the past several decades, as it stands today, “the United States produces more goods… than ever”:

With the usual ups and downs, real industrial output has increased by over 200 per cent since the mid-1960s. As a percent of real GDP, measured by final product, goods production rose from 22 per cent during the 1960s and 1970s to 28 per cent in the 2000s and 31 per cent in 2010-12.[8]

The reason for this, Moody and Post note, relates to “enormous productivity increases since the early 1980s[…].” This stems from unceasing speed-ups imposed upon workers through the introduction of new machinery and, most significantly, through the social reorganization of production along more-efficient lines – so-called “lean production” techniques. This phenomenon explains the simultaneous decline in the size of the U.S. industrial workforce, coupled with the dramatic increase in industrial output in terms of both GDP and real-world volume.

Beyond this, it’s also important to point out that, since the start of the (so-called) economic recovery in 2010, the United States has actually experienced a sustained increase in manufacturing employment. Notably, this development marks the first such multi-year period of growth in this sector since the late 1970s. Thus, even while manufacturing employment has not yet returned to pre-recession levels, this sector has, nonetheless, added well over half a million production jobs over the last four years.[9]

Based on this information, it’s clear that, while Erik Forman’s analysis of the growing importance of the service-sector industry is no doubt justified, this is only part of the story behind what’s going on during the present period.

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So what’s missing from this analysis? Moreover, why have so many Marxists and radicals in recent years come to disregard and write off the importance of the U.S. industrial proletariat when assessing the current period?

A key reason for this dilemma, I’d argue, relates to the issue of geography and the increasing importance of geographical location as a factor in economic development patterns over the past several decades. In short, during the neoliberal period, advancements in transportation and communication technology – accompanied by mounting international competition – have led capitalists to place a special emphasis on the strategic selection of new production sites. Such decisions are, of course, part and parcel of the unceasing efforts of employers to undercut market competition through cutting expenditures. To this end, employers inevitably seek out those geographical areas and regions that provide them with – among other profit-related considerations – cheaper, more exploitable, and more docile sources of labor.

Such considerations are, of course, the central force behind the much-discussed phenomenon of outsourcing and offshoring. But by no means is this trend confined to instances where manufacturing firms relocate production overseas or across the border. The trend also takes the form of internal capital flight and restructuring within the United States (and, likewise, within other nations as well). It also manifests itself in terms of foreign direct investment into the United States (as well is into other countries).

Crucially, this phenomenon is at work in the recent upsurge in U.S. manufacturing employment. In this way, growth in this sector has disproportionally taken place in those U.S. regions and states with lower union densities, greater levels of poverty, and lower prevailing wage rates. With this in mind, it isn’t surprising that, over the past four years, the increase in manufacturing employment has been heavily concentrated in right-to-work states. In total, almost seventy percent of overall job growth in manufacturing during this period took place in those 24 states with right-to-work laws (this includes Michigan and Indiana, both of which became right-to-work states in 2012).[10] This statistic is all the more noteworthy since the combined population of these 24 states is less than half (46 percent) of the overall national total.[11]

Beyond this, it’s also worth noting that, since 2010, around two-thirds of overall manufacturing job growth took place in just two geographical regions: the Great Lakes region (which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and — not surprisingly — the historically anti-union Southeast. Meanwhile, during this same period, both the New England region and the Mideast region experienced overall decline in manufacturing employment. In total, the manufacturing sector shed some 5,900 jobs in the Northeast and 37,100 in the Mideast.[12]

Importantly, the geographic dynamics behind the recent growth of U.S. manufacturing employment have also played out on a local and state-by-state level, as well. To put this in specific terms, in the Southeast (as in other regions), employers have increasingly tended to locate new production facilities in provincial areas — and, in some cases, even semi-rural areas — as part of their strategy of cutting costs and seeking out cheap sources of labor. As a result of this, as it stands today, some of the most profitable and economically-strategic production facilities and hubs in the South (and elsewhere) are now situated in far-flung, seemingly middle-of-nowhere areas.[13]

Not coincidentally, such locations tend to be far removed, both in proximity and influence, from those areas with historically strong labor and Left-wing political movements. For its part, the organized Left in particular tends to be based overwhelmingly in major metropolitan areas and, in some cases, university towns – exactly the types of locations that the bosses consciously try to avoid when seeking out new sites of hyper-exploitation.

For what it’s worth, this dynamic does much to explain how so many cosmopolitan, college-educated Marxists and radicals have come to envision the United States as being fully “deindustrialized.” Since a large portion of Lefties tend to live in increasingly gentrified postmodern metropolises like New York City and Chicago – or, for that matter, downtown Minneapolis – then the notion that the U.S. is “deindustrialized” inevitably tends to accord with their immediate surroundings and personal experience. And since so much of Left-wing media (not to mention mainstream media and culture) is based in these regions as well, then such assumptions have tended to become increasingly hegemonic in recent years.

But while the notion that the United States is becoming “deindustrialized” might seem plausible to a Marxist in (say) Brooklyn – such an outlook is unlikely to accord with the experience of many people that live and work in industrial areas in the South, the Midwest, and elsewhere.

Anderson, South Carolina: “The Electric City”

To provide one particularly notable example, consider the case of Anderson, South Carolina – a small manufacturing city located along the I-85 industrial corridor in the state’s “Upstate” region. An overview of Anderson’s economy is provided in the city’s boosterish Wikipedia page:

Anderson’s economy revolves around manufacturing. Anderson has over 230 manufacturers, including 22 international companies. In the county, Anderson has a thriving business climate. The top major industries in Anderson include manufacturers of automotive products, metal products, industrial machinery, plastics, publishing, and textiles. Two industries that many times interconnect are the plastic and automotive sectors. There are more than 27 BMW suppliers in the Upstate region, which is recognized internationally as an automotive supplier hub. The plastics industry has a strong presence in the Upstate, with 244 plastic companies located within the 10 counties of the state’s northwest corner. Anderson County, in particular, has 11 automotive suppliers and is a major player in the plastic industry, with 27 plastics companies located within its borders. It has one unionized company in the area.

According to the most recent census, the total population of Anderson was under 27,000 with around 187,000 living in Anderson County. Meanwhile, in the second quarter of 2014, Anderson County was home to a total of just under 13,000 manufacturing jobs out of a total nonfarm workforce of just 68,500.[14] This means that roughly one in five employees in Anderson is a factory worker.

Anderson is also the home of a number of large-scale production sites employing more than 500 workers. This includes, among other such facilities, a plant owned by German electronics manufacturer Robert Bosch, which produces oxygen sensors and engine components used by the automotive industry. In total, Anderson’s Bosch plant employs some 1,300 production workers. Another such facility is a refrigerator factory owned by Swedish multinational corporation Elextrolux. As of May 2014, Anderson’s Elextrolux plant employed some 1,900 full-time and contract employees.[15]

Beyond this, as already indicated, Anderson is located within a broader manufacturing hub that spans the entire 10-county Upstate South Carolina region. In all, the Upstate is home to well over a hundred thousand factory workers — including some 28,668 manufacturing employees in Greenville County and some 25,668 in Spartanburg County.[16] Meanwhile, the region’s booming industrial economy also extends along I-85 across the South Carolina border into both Georgia and North Carolina.

But despite Anderson’s heavy concentration of industrial workers – a segment of the class that really does have the objective power to bring the bosses to their knees – the workforce here is overwhelmingly cut off from both the established labor movement and the organized Left. Indeed, to my knowledge, not a single established U.S. socialist organization has a branch in the larger Upstate South Carolina area – let alone in a tiny, provincial city like Anderson. In regard to organized labor, the union density rate among manufacturing workers in the broader Greenville-Anderson-Seneca, South Carolina region is just 2 percent. Meanwhile, the overall union density – including both private and public sector workers – is a disturbingly low 1.6 percent.[17]

Sadly, these rock-bottom figures are not at all surprising given South Carolina’s brutal, longstanding history of anti-unionism.[18] Indeed, as it stands today, South Carolina ranks second from last in terms of union density. (Only North Carolina has a lower percentage of union members.) Beyond this, South Carolina is also home to quite possibly the single most outspoken and viciously anti-union major elected official in the entire country, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. In early 2014, Haley made international headlines when she told a crowd of auto industry executives and top-level managers at an automotive conference in the Upstate region that, “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water. [emphasis added]”[19] More recently, Haley has enthusiastically aligned herself with a union-busting campaign waged by aerospace giant Boeing, which opened a massive production facility in North Charleston in 2011. Backed by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) – which, of course, represents Boeing workers at all of the company’s other North American plants (and has so for decades) – the union drive in North Charleston has apparently picked up steam in recent months as a result of ongoing organizing efforts by IAM, coupled with mounting workers’ discontent toward management. Last month, as part of her effort to bolster the company’s anti-union counteroffensive, Haley devoted a sizable portion of her January 21 “State of the State” speech to attacking the Boeing union drive and defaming the labor movement in general. During this anti-union rant, Haley instructed her bourgeois audience of state legislators, law-enforcement officials, and others that the future of South Carolina’s economy — its “world-class, world-renowned business climate,” as Haley put it — now rests, in no small part, upon the ability of the state’s business elite and political establishment to join ranks and crush the union struggle at Boeing. As Haley put it, “[W]e have beaten back the IAM before, and with the support of those of us in this room, and the good people all across South Carolina, I have every confidence that the Boeing workers in Charleston will see this play for exactly what it is and reject this union power grab.”[20]

Much like Nikki Haley, in South Carolina’s Upstate region, local politicians and employers wear their hatred and brutal opposition to unions on their sleeves as a matter of pride and economic advantage. To provide one example of this, in September, the Upstate Alliance — an influential “economic development agency” with multiple offices throughout the 10-county region —  bragged in a press release that, “the Upstate has proven to be a significant labor resource for international businesses by combining competitive labor costs with impressive productivity, along with the 2nd lowest unionization rate in the nation and a workforce highly skilled in engineering and technical work. [emphasis added]”[21]

As a result of this hostile, anti-union environment in Anderson (and in the Upstate in general), at present, the broader labor movement and socialist Left in this country is overwhelmingly ignorant of and disconnected from the struggles, the contributions, and the knowledge of Anderson’s massive industrial proletariat and broader working-class population. Simultaneously, in most cases, workers in Anderson have very few sympathetic outside forces to turn to for solidarity, mutual aid, and other forms of desperately-needed assistance and backing.

It goes without saying that this state of affairs is not a coincidence. Over the years, the bosses and their lackeys – including, of course, Nikki Haley – have maintained a state of unrelenting vigilance in Anderson, the Upstate, and South Carolina in general (not to mention the U.S. South as a whole) with the goal of neutralizing all perceived threats to their parasitic class interests by any means necessary. This is how they’ve managed to develop and maintain this region as a bastion of low-wage, unorganized, hyper-exploited manufacturing labor.

Of course, at the same time, there are signs that the ongoing manufacturing boom in the broader Upstate region has contributed to a concomitant rise in social tension and turmoil. For one thing, this potent social and economic setting has undoubtedly helped — albeit on an indirect level — to fuel the recent rise of student protest movements at a number of Upstate universities. Particularly promising in this regard is the development of a well-organized anti-racist student struggle at Clemson University, located in Pickens County, right next to Anderson. Beginning last fall as part of the broader Black Lives Matter movement, the struggle at Clemson has, over the past several months, raised a number of important demands directed at university administration. Black students have put pressure on administration to dramatically expand the university’s efforts to boost Black student recruitment and enrollment. (Currently, Black students comprise just six percent of Clemson’s overall student body.) Beyond this, the movement has also demanded that administration rename Tillman Hall, which currently bares the moniker of the infamous white-supremacist Ben Tillman. Notably, in addition to the movement at Clemson, students at USC Upstate in Spartanburg have also taken part in sustained protest activity over the past year.[22]

But despite these inspiring displays of collective protest, as it stands today, open resistance remains a strictly outside-the-workplace phenomenon in Anderson and the Upstate region. It goes without saying that this situation cannot stay the same forever. Sooner or later, workplace struggle and workers’ power will inevitably emerge as an open and potentially transformative force in Anderson and elsewhere.


1. See Kim Moody, “Why the Industrial Working Class Still Matters,” Against the Current 58 (September-October 1995); Adam Turl, “Is the U.S. becoming post-industrial?” International Socialist Review 52 (March-April 2007).

2. The troubling practical implications of the “deindustrialization” thesis, particularly in its most extreme manifestations, are hinted at in the widely-read radical journal series Endnotes, written by members of a (mostly-anonymous) anti-capitalist discussion group based in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany. On a political level, the Endnotes group rejects the idea that workplace resistance and workers’ power at the point of production can serve as a key arena for revolutionary struggle within the context of neoliberalism. Crucially, this political perspective is closely linked to the group’s adherence to the “deindustrialization” thesis. The group outlines their views on this matter most directly in Endnotes 3:

In the twentieth century, proletarians were able to unite under the flags of the workers’ movement, with the goal of rebuilding society as a cooperative commonwealth. The coordinates of this older form of liberation have been thoroughly scrambled. The industrial workforce was formerly engaged in building a modern world; it could understand its work as having a purpose, beyond the reproduction of the class relation. Now, all that seems ridiculous. The industrial workforce has been shrinking for decades. The oil-automobile-industrial complex is not building the world but destroying it. And since countless proletarians are employed in dead-end service jobs, they tend to see no purpose in their work, besides the fact that it allows them to “get by”. Many proletarians today produce little more than the conditions of their own domination. What programme can be put forward on that basis? There is no section of the class that can present its interests as bearing a universal significance. And so, instead, a positive project would have to find its way through a cacophony of sectional interests.

“The Holding Pattern: The ongoing crisis and the class struggles of 2011-2013,” in Endnotes 3: Gender, Race, Class and Other Misfortunes (September 2013).

3. Erik Forman, “Revolt in Fast Food Nation: The Wobblies Take on Jimmy John’s,” in New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism, ed. Immanuel Ness (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), 209.

4. As so often tends to be the case in union organizing drives in the United States, management at the Minneapolis Jimmy John’s franchise defeated the JJWU in the 2010 union election through carrying out an orchestrated campaign of shopfloor terrorism and intimation with the assistance of a professional union-busting firm. As it was, the union ultimately lost the election by a margin of just 85 to 87. (Notably, in the vote tally, two pro-union ballots were left uncounted due to legal challenges brought by the company.)

As Forman recounts in the essay, months after the unsuccessful election, the company struck a further blow against the JJWU in March 2011 when management singled out and fired six of the union’s leading militants in response to a union-led campaign aimed at forcing the company to alter its abusive and unacceptable policy for sick days. From the standpoint of management, this act of retaliation — Forman explains — “was a calculated move to ‘decapitate’ the union by taking out the people they perceived as leaders.” Following their termination, the six sacked workers submitted Unfair Labor Practice charges against their employer to the NLRB. After almost a full year of waiting, an NLRB judge finally ruled in favor of the JJWU. As it was, however, this decision hardly constituted a victory for the aggrieved workers. As Forman explains,

The judge ordered Jimmy John’s to reinstate the six fired workers with back pay and expunge from the record the warnings given to other participants in the sick day action. The bitter irony is that this was the fullest remedy the NLRB could offer. No fines. No jail time. Just the wages we would have made, minus interim earnings, and reinstatement to our shitty jobs. Within weeks, the company announced it would appeal the rulings rather than comply, meaning we would not be back on the job for even longer as the appeal made its way first to the NLRB, and then likely to higher, even more conservative courts.

Once again, the legal route proved a dead end.

Ibid., 227, 230, 231.

5. Ibid., 209.

6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics Survey,” Manufacturing, Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject, February 10, 2015. Available at (Click here for a PDF version of this data.)

7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The Employment Situation – January 2015,” Press release, February 6, 2015.

8. Kim Moody and Charles Post, “The Politics of US Labour: Paralysis and Possibilities,” Socialist Register 51 (2015): 296.

9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics Survey,” Manufacturing, Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject.

10. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employees on nonfarm payrolls in state and selected areas by major industry,” tables for 2010 and 2013.

Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not yet released the finalized state-by-state 2014 averages for manufacturing employment, I computed these figures through using the non-seasonally adjusted monthly tables for this same dataset. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment on nonfarm payrolls in States and selected areas by major industry,” January 2014-December 2014.

(Click here for a table that documents in detail the discrepancy in recent manufacturing job growth between right-to-work and non-right-to-work states.)

11. U.S. Census Bureau, “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014,” 2014 Population Estimates. Available online through

12. The regions referenced here come from the comparative geographical categories used by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The BEA’s model divides the country into eight distinct geographical regions: New England, Mideast, Great Lakes, Plains, Southeast, Southwest, Rocky Mountain, and Far West.

The four BEA regions that I reference in this passage are comprised, respectively, of the following states: 1.) Great Lakes Region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin); 2.) Southeast Region (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia); 3.) New England Region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont); 4.) Mideast Region (Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania).

13. Simultaneously, in recent years, a number of areas in the South that were, in previous periods, hubs for manufacturing and industry have since become “deindustrialized” as result of the closure of production facilities and capital flight. Such “deindustrialized” areas in the South – like their counterparts in other areas of the country – have disproportionally tended to be located in urban areas.

To provide one example, in Atlanta, a number of the city’s inside-the-beltline neighborhoods and areas that were previously the site of numerous manufacturing facilities are now almost entirely “deindustrialized.” As is the case with many cities across the country, this trend has gone hand-in-hand with the gentrification of these same areas. Thus, all too often, formally blue-collar Atlanta neighborhoods have been transformed into “postindustrial” yuppie ghettos. Examples of this type of development are the Cabbagetown and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods, among numerous other such cases currently in various stages of gentrification.

Notably, in many instances, real estate developers have sought to capitalize on the growing “desirability” of these inside-the-beltline neighborhoods by converting shuttered old-timey factories into condominiums, restaurants, and other developments marketed toward yuppies. For what it’s worth, it seems likely that this type of postmodern urban development contributes to the widespread (but erroneous) assumption that Atlanta, like the country as a whole, is now “deindustrialized.” After all, nothing says “post-industrial economy” like a shuttered steel mill that’s been turned into a bourgie bar or a warehouse distribution center that’s been converted into an upscale shopping center.

For the most part, this is an optical illusion, however. Indeed, while real-estate profiteers are busy “redeveloping” many working-class neighborhoods and formally industrial locations in Atlanta, other parts of the broader metro area — for instance, Duluth and Lithonia — are, simultaneously, now the site of booming manufacturing and industrial districts. In general, the lasting importance of Atlanta’s manufacturing economy is clearly evidenced by recent employment statistics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in December 2014, there were a total of 154,300 employees on manufacturing payrolls in the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta metropolitan area. This marked an increase of about 3,300 jobs in this sector in the period since December 2013.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employees on nonfarm payrolls in states and selected areas by major industry,” State and Area Employment (not seasonally adjusted), December 2014.

14. Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina Department of Employment & Workforce, “Industry Employment Distribution (2nd Quarter, 2014),” Summary area profile for Anderson County, South Carolina. Available ay

Without a doubt, this statistic dramatically underestimates the total number of manufacturing employees in Anderson — a shortcoming that stems from the increasing reliance of U.S. manufacturing employers (and, for that matter, all other employers) on temp agencies and staffing firms to supply new production workers. According to an estimate provided by a University of South Carolina economist, between 2012 and 2014, employees from staffing firms accounted for “more than 32 of every 100 jobs.”

Bill Poovey, “Staffing firms attribute growing popularity to shift in mindset,” Charleston Regional Business Journal, February 2, 2015.

15. Eric Frazier, “Electrolux to invest $30 million more in Anderson, SC, refrigerator plant,” Charlotte Observer, May 14, 2014; Upstate South Carolina Alliance, “Major Employers,” dataset. Available at

16. Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina Department of Employment & Workforce, “Industry Employment Distribution (2nd Quarter, 2014),” Summary area profiles for Greenville County and Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

17. The figures given here represent the percentage of workers in the Greenville-Anderson-Seneca area that are dues-paying members of unions. Since South Carolina is a right-to-work state, this figure is slightly lower than the portion of area workers that are covered by union contracts (2.3 percent). Union Membership, Coverage, Density and Employment by Combined Statistical Area (CSA) and MSA, 2014,” The Union Membership and Coverage Database. Avaliable online at

18. For more on South Carolina’s recent history of anti-unionism, see Suzan Erem and E. Paul Durrenberger, On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5 (New York City: Monthly Review Press, 2008).

19. Rudolph Bell, “South Carolina: Union jobs aren’t welcome here,” USA Today, February 20, 2014.

20. Transcript to Gov. Haley’s State of the State speech, The State, January 21, 2015.

21. The Upstate Alliance, “What is Driving the Manufacturing Renaissance?,”, September 4, 2014.

22. See “‘Pepper in the salt shaker’ – Clemson hears calls for more diversity,” The State (Columbia, South Carolina), January 31, 2015; Jenny Arnold, “Students discuss faculty delaying no-confidence vote on USC Upstate chancellor,”, February 3, 2015.


3 thoughts on “In Search of Workers’ Power

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