Home > Disarticulation Series > The disarticulation of the US working class: Introduction; Unions and strikes

The disarticulation of the US working class: Introduction; Unions and strikes


This post is the first in an occasional series on the disarticulation of the US working class during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. I have used (but certainly not invented) this term to describe a totality of social phenomena that have qualitatively altered the political landscape on which revolutionaries operate. The word “disarticulation” means “to become disjointed,” which is to my mind evocative of the state of the class; the word also suggests an inability to speak (articulate) one’s mind. At the same time, it doesn’t go far as to suggest the disappearance of the “class-in-itself” or its dissolution into a multitude, precariat, or whatever. What is disarticulated can be rearticulated; indeed, the latter is precisely the process to which this series aims to contribute in one way or another.

I am not a professional sociologist or historian, and hence unable to give full-time attention to this inquiry, so these writings will inevitably exhibit a certain amateurish quality. This is unfortunate, but I can at least hope to spur discussion among more qualified and/or informed comrades.

The series will be, by and large, critical and “negative.” This is primarily because the situation of the US working class is, objectively, very bad. It is secondarily because revolutionary Marxists in the US have, in their basically admirable quest to spread the “Good News” about socialism, rendered themselves fairly conservative–even defensive–in their theoretical and strategic thinking. (As an experiment, try telling one of us that Trotsky’s theory of the united front has basically fuck-all to do with contemporary American political conditions. You are bound to give offense, even though you would be manifestly correct.) This backward-looking defensiveness must be broken through; Marxists must again become capable of integrating the moments of truth in non- or anti-Marxist research, even if we reject the conclusions. We must reunite “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will.”

Comrades who demand of every critic or dissident to see their “positive alternative” right away have not, I think, really understood the dialectical method. Progress is achieved through negations, not via “side-by-side comparison” in some “marketplace of ideas.” So to those who would ask me, “Where would your analysis leave us?” I can only answer: “It would leave us where we already are; but at least we would know it.”

These ideas were initially presented in two documents for the 2013 National Convention of the International Socialist Organization. These were co-authored with another comrade; while I gratefully acknowledge his contributions, the opinions expressed in this series are entirely my responsibility.

Unions and strikes

Union density in the US in 2013 stood at 11.3%, the lowest point in 97 years. This statistic demonstrates the disarticulation of the working class practically on its own. Unions are, under capitalism, the most rudimentary form of workers’ self-defense. They are, to a limited but important extent, schools of organization and politics for workers–and unlike social movements or political organizations, American unions are typically a compulsory school, inasmuch as they generally organize on a workplace and not an individual basis. Today the vast majority of workers do not attend this school; and even when they do, there is a decreasing amount of struggle in the “lesson plan.”

It is generally recognized, particularly by groups in the International Socialist tradition, that there was a dramatic “downturn” in class struggle in the 1980s. This is established clearly in the US case by the following table, which aggregates by decade data on major work stoppages (ie, strikes and lockouts involving at least 1,000 workers for at least one shift) for the last four full decades since 1970.

1970-9 1980-9 1990-9 2000-9
Number of stoppages 2,888 831 347 201
Workers involved (thousands) 14,878 5,066 2,709 1,283

Yet even a cursory study of the table reveals that stoppages underwent an exponential decline throughout the entire neoliberal period; the “downturn” was not at all limited to the 1980s, even though the rate of decline was sharpest in that decade.

There are a few objections that might be raised at this point. First, it could be argued that the data is not complete, since it omits small stoppages. This is true, but even if all the figures in the table were multiplied by some factor to account for this, the trajectory would not be affected at all.

More subtly, it could be claimed that the data structurally overlooks much of the working class because workplaces have become dramatically smaller on average during precisely this period. But this is a misconception: in 2006, a US worker had about 700 coworkers on average, only 11% less than in 1975. In fact, a service worker in 2006 had 970 coworkers on average. [Samuel E. Henly and Juan M. Sánchez, “The US Establishment-Size Distribution: Secular Changes and Sectoral Decomposition,” Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Economic Quarterly 95:4 (Fall 2009), pp. 419-454.] The average manufacturing worker does labor in a much smaller shop–about half the size of the 1975 shop–but this is itself a result of the decline in class struggle: bosses have been able to squeeze more out of fewer workers, plus labor quiescence has allowed capital to stretch supply lines without fear of interruptions in production. [Kim Moody, “Contextualising Organised Labour in Expansion and Crisis: The Case of the US,” Historical Materialism 20:1 (2012), pp. 3-30; Laurie A. Graham, “How Foreign-Owned Auto Plants Remain Union-Free,” New Labor Forum 17:3 (Fall 2008), pp. 59-66.]

In short, there is not much case to be made that the decline in large workplace confrontations was being made up for by a flowering of smaller conflicts. Now often enough, comrades attempt to dispute the case by alluding to particularly massive or heroic strikes, such as the UPS strike of 1997 or the “Day Without an Immigrant” strikes of May Day 2006. Such events are important and repay close analysis, but it is not serious to invoke examples against an argument about aggregate trends. As Lenin wrote, “In order to depict [the] objective position one must not take examples or isolated data (in view of the extreme complexity of the phenomena of social life it is always possible to select any number of examples or separate data to prove any proposition), but all the data on the basis of economic life….”

The decline of strikes, union density, and the labor movement generally plays the central role in the disarticulation of the working class. While I very strongly concur with what Richard Seymour, David Renton, and others have said about the limitations of “strike-led strategy” based on the sections of the class that are currently the most unionized, it remains the case that the workplace is the fundamental locus of struggle for the working class; the power of the class rests, in the final instance, entirely on its ability to stop the production and turnover of capital. This does not mean that the rearticulation of the class will necessarily proceed first in the workplace and only afterwards in “the streets”–it is possible (even likely) that exactly the reverse will occur. Nonetheless, the weakness of the struggle at the point of production has underlain the many problems encountered in the social movements, such as the difficulty of sustaining them.

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