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)

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The fast food workers’ movement and the Ferguson rebellion

During the mass uprising that engulfed Ferguson, Missouri in the weeks following the police murder of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown, members of the St. Louis-area fast food workers’ organizing campaign – Show Me $15 – were deeply involved in the night-and-day demonstrations that rocked the city and the community organizing meetings that helped to cohere and sustain the movement. Without a doubt, the Ferguson uprising also drew the participation of many other fast food workers that had, up to that point, shied away from Show Me $15 and opted out of joining any of the one-day strike protests sponsored by the campaign.

The extensive involvement of fast food workers in the Ferguson rebellion is documented in detail by a number of articles published in the Left-wing and labor press. An August 20 story in Labor Notes, for example, explains that, “In the wake of widespread anger about Brown’s shooting, and police repression of protesters, members of the Show Me $15 fast food workers group have been at the demonstrations daily. They said the organizing they’d learned in the last 22 months, as they struck and demanded $15 an hour and a union, helped them know how to organize for justice.”[1] Continue reading