Challening the narrative of working-class powerlessness

There is perhaps no better symbol of working class power in the United States than the 1936–37 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan that sparked a wave of factory occupations drawing half a million workers into militant action across the country. And yet today, Flint is a deindustrialized city in steep decline, facing a struggle to secure clean drinking water.

The story of industrial restructuring, plummeting unionization rates, and the death of the “American Dream” has been mirrored in cities across the US. It has helped fuel a narrative that manufacturing is no longer central to the global economy, the working class has lost its transformative power to challenge capitalism, and that we must look to other social forces—an underclass, multitude, or precariat—as revolutionary agents today.

Immanuel Ness’s Southern Insurgency challenges this narrative, arguing that deindustrialization in the Global North has not resulted in the wholesale disappearance of industrial production and the working class. Instead, they have been relocated and reconstituted in the Global South. In fact, new concentrations

of production in the Global South have created a massive new industrial working class that is developing consciousness and organization through militant struggle. Ness sets out to examine these developments by looking at three industrial centers: auto manufacturing in India, shoe manufacturing in China, and platinum mining in South Africa.

Key to the rise of these new industrial centers was the prying open of economies by international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, deregulation and privatization of state enterprises, and the creation of special economic zones (SEZs) where corporations are drawn to “government subsidies for development, low-cost land, tax abatement, and lowering tariffs.” These conditions favorable to capitalist profits have helped keep labor costs extremely low and productivity high. The result for the people of these new centers, however, has been further impoverishment and oppression of workers, surrounding communities, migrants, and indigenous populations.

It’s hard to overstate the size and significance of this transformation. Between 1980 and 2007, “production in the South has expanded, and global production as a whole has grown from 1.9 billion to 3.1 billion workers—far more working people than at any time in the history of capitalism.” In one SEZ, an industrial belt surrounding India’s capital, New Delhi, it is estimated that there are 2.5 million workers employed. And the Pearl River Delta on China’s east coast was home to three of the four busiest ports in the world in 2012, and has a population of 57.9 million people.

In other words, this global restructuring hasn’t just created new concentrations of capital and impoverishment but has also created massive new concentrations of workers.Global Insurgency shows the tremendous power of these workers as they move into struggle for better wages and working conditions. One strike wave in 2014, for example, resulted in the shutting down of South Africa’s three leading platinum producers and cost an estimated $2.25 billion in revenue.

With so much money at risk, employers use aggressive strategies to crush attempts at workplace organizing in hopes of curbing the tremendous power of their workers. Ness describes one of the most common—firing permanent workers and replacing them with more flexible, precarious, contract workers. Contract workers are often immigrants without local roots or connections who have less legal protection and rights, and are paid far less than permanent workers. This means that contract workers are more easily pitted against permanent workers and can be used to institutionalize division within the workforce. The practice has become so widespread it is estimated that in one SEZ in India, contract labor makes up as much as 85 percent of the workforce.

Southern Insurgency is full of examples of workers overcoming these kinds of divisions in struggle. Ness describes the example of Maruti Suzuki autoworkersin New Delhi’s industrial belt.After rounds of firings and the replacement of permanent workers with contract workers, permanent workers drew the conclusion that in order to win their struggle for union recognition they would need to raise demands, organize, and unite with the contract workers. The demands included “employer recognition of their union, elimination of tiered wages and reclassification of informal workers as permanent employees.” The permanent workers refused to accept a deal that did not apply equally to all workers doing the same work. And in turn, contract workers fought alongside permanent workers in their struggle for union recognition.

Another dynamic illustrated in Southern Insurgency is the potential for struggle among one group of workers to quickly broaden and spread rapidly to others beyond that individual workplace. In 2014, for example, workers at a Yue Yuen shoe factory organized what is considered to be the largest strike at a private enterprise in China’s history. Resistance was sparked when workers found out that Yue Yuen had been underpaying social security payments for pensions, medical insurance, housing allowance, and injury compensation. After the police attacked striking workers attempting to shut down a local bridge, the strike spread in solidarity to include 30,000 workers at the three other Yue Yuen factories in the city. Before long, the Yue Yuen workers had gained mass support among workers across the whole Jiangxi province and ended up winning social security payments for all workers at the company.

But the impact of the strike did not stop there. Inspiration from the struggle and its victory spread to Yue Yuen workers in Guangdong province. It then spread to service sector workers, inspiring a strike of taxicab drivers, and eventually even inspiring a struggle against a crackdown on sex work.

In each Southern Insurgency case study, workers come to find out that they are not just fighting their employer in struggle. In fact, their employer also had the backing of the state, the media, and even unions. Sometimes this backing was passive, such as turning a blind eye to the use of hired company thugs against workers and their families. At other times, the state intervened directly on behalf of the employers, using police or military force to brutally put down the workers.

This was certainly true of miners who in 2012 were massacred by police in Marikana, South Africa after a wildcat strike to demand wage increases. The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was against wildcat strike action and lined up on the side of the police during the massacre, where forty-one workers were murdered and seventy-eight were injured. A later investigation found that the murders were premeditated and implicated senior government officials.

These experiences have challenged workers—who started with wage demands—to reconsider a whole number of political questions such as whose side the government and unions are on and what role they will play in future struggles. In some cases, it has forced workers to create new organizations and unions to carry their struggle forward from below. Ness is hopeful that this process of reevaluation and self-organization of rank-and-file workers—building from the ground up through struggle—lays a promising basis for a stronger workers’ movement to come.

While Southern Insurgency offers many important lessons, it islesshelpful in providing a theoretical framework for understanding the global neoliberal restructuring of industrial production, imperialism, and the relationship between capital, unions, and the state.For example, while Ness rightly combats the myth that we live in a postindustrial world by pointing to the Global South, he accepts that it is a reality in the North. But while manufacturing in the Global North has been restructured, and certainly involves proportionally fewer workers, it hasn’t disappeared. Nevertheless, the case studies in Southern Insurgency illustrate clearly that Marxism—based on the self-activity, self-organization, and emancipatory power of the working class in struggle—is alive and well today.

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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