New sinews of working class power

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Are logistics workers the new centre of potential power? Pic: Alvy/Flickr

Much has been written about how globalisation has rendered workers powerless. American socialist Kim Moody’s important new book on the restructuring of capital in the past four decades argues that the working class, far from disappearing, has renewed potential power, writes Mark L Thomas.

The defeats suffered by the working class movement from the late 1970s onwards created a new common sense that saw the increased internationalisation of the world economy as having fragmented and dissolved the working class. It might still show up in statistics but its collective power had been undermined, perhaps fatally.

This train of argument held that as millions of the former industrial jobs were lost, the new landscape of work that emerged was made up of smaller workplaces, ever rising numbers of insecure workers and footloose employers able to shift production elsewhere with relative ease in the face of any signs of militancy.

Kim Moody’s new book tears apart this picture and presents a very different account that points to the immense potential for the renewal of working class power.

Moody dismisses claims that major increases in more tenuous employment relationships now shape the world of work, creating a “precariat” of insecure, casualised workers displacing the more permanent, stable forms of work that underpinned collective organisation by workers in the past.

Moody’s response is captured by the section heading “Precarious work: growth, but less than you thought”. Temporary agency workers, those on short-term contracts, on-call work, bogus self-employment and involuntary part-time work made up 15.2 percent of the American workforce in 1995 on the figures of the US Bureau of Labor Studies and 15.5 percent a decade later. This is a marginal increase that leaves most workers in the US in permanent employment.

Nor are workers constantly leaving or changing their jobs. Average job tenure, the time someone stays in the same job, has changed little since the early 1970s. For 24 to 35 year olds it was 3.5 years in 2006, rising to 6.6 years for the 35 to 44 age group and 10.3 years for those aged 45 to 54.

And the neoliberal era has not seen workplaces getting smaller in terms of the size of workforce: “In 2008 altogether 24.7 million workers were employed in workplaces of 500 or more or 20 percent of the employed workforce compared to 16.5 million, also 20 percent, in 1986. Those employed in workplaces of a thousand or more rose to 16.5 million, or 14 percent, of the total workforce in 2008 from 10.7 million, or 13 percent, in 1986.”


While the number of workers in manufacturing has fallen — due to rising productivity and not the offshoring of production and rising imports, as Trump (and many US union leaders) would have it — workers in the service sector have become concentrated in bigger workplaces and subject to greater levels of exploitation and work intensification. And like their counterparts in manufacturing, they have experienced repeated attacks on their pensions, benefits and pay while ever increasing wealth has accumulated for the owners of capital at the top of society.

Moody argues that the sharpening competition between rival capitals that marks the neoliberal era initially saw large-scale restructuring, involving mass layoffs, destruction of some firms and the break-up of others. This splintered the old patterns of employment, including some of the centres of union power built in previous upsurges of working class struggle (in the US for example capital shifted away from the industrial centres in the North to the Mid-West and the South with weaker traditions of workplace militancy).

But the logic of competition also created a counter-tendency to such fragmentation and reorganisation. It drove a new round of consolidation — or the concentration and centralisation of capitals as Marx described it — with fewer and larger firms dominating industry after industry, increasingly tied together by just-in-time supply chains organised through “logistics clusters” highly vulnerable to disruption.

Such new concentrations of capital have also created new concentrations of workers with the potential to launch a new wave of working class militancy and workplace organisation.

Moody also argues that the reorganisation of capital in the US (and he suggests in Europe too) has witnessed a shift since the mid-1990s away from the creation of multi-industry corporate “conglomerates” to consolidation within single industries, which are more favourable targets for union organising.

The US car industry led the way here. In the 1980s and early 1990s the “Big Three” car producers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) declined, ending car assembly on the East and West Coasts, shifting production to the US Mid-West with historically weaker centres of union organisation, alongside the rise of foreign owned “transplants” — concentrated in the upper South, such as Kentucky and Tennessee and the US Southeast.

Parts suppliers then tended to cluster around these locations and, in turn, went through a process of consolidation and centralisation with the number of auto components firms falling by as much as 80 percent over the two decades from 1990 to 2010, creating an industry dominated by fewer and larger firms. As Moody notes, “today, the auto industry as a whole is more centralised, structured, and tightly linked, with its parts suppliers fewer and larger, and more geographically concentrated in two regions than was the case in the glory days of the Big Three.”


By the start of the 21st century this process of consolidation spread across US industry. So meat processing and packing saw drastic restructuring in the 1980s with a wave of takeovers and plant closures; by 2011 the biggest four companies controlled 75 percent of meat production.

And similar patterns of brutal shakeouts followed by new rounds of consolidation took place in the US steel industry (where two companies now dominate domestic production); logistics (with five firms dominating rail freight and employing 80 percent of the industry’s workers, while UPS and FedEx alone employ 40 percent of the US’s 1.7 million trucking and delivery workers); the airline industry (where ten major firms a decade ago have been reduced to four) and telecommunications (with four firms controlling 90 percent of the market).

Such trends also applied to service industries. Nearly three-quarters of former community hospitals are now part of large urban corporate chains, employing 4.5 million workers and with the average workforce size in community hospitals increased. A similar picture can be seen in US nursing care homes and the hotel industry, while the rise of Wal-Mart in the 1990s and of online businesses such as Amazon in the 2000s drove a major concentration into the hands of a few giant firms in the retail industry.

This process has also driven the reorganisation of supply chains and the “logistics revolution”. New logistics clusters composed of “transportation hubs, massive warehouses and distribution centres, aerotropolises, sea ports, intermodal yards, and sophisticated technology” developed, employing thousands of workers and either in, or next to, large urban centres. Moody suggests that there are roughly 60 such clusters in the US, with the biggest around Chicago, Los Angeles and the New York-New Jersey area.

Such “distribution cities” also have huge concentrations of workers. Chicago alone has around 150,000 to 200,000 warehouse workers in its wider metropolitan area. The new UPS “Worldport” superhub in Louisville, Kentucky, employs 55,000 workers while FedEx’s superhub in Memphis, Tennessee, is the “largest cargo airport in the world” as well as a rail and trucking hub that employs 220,000 workers. Overall, Moody estimates that 3.5 to 4 million workers are employed in the US logistics industry.

Such workers are under enormous pressure — subject to constant orders to speed up delivery times and minimise the time goods spend, unsold, in storage. But they also possess enormous potential power to disrupt US capital’s crucial supply chains:

“With increased competition, advanced technology, and the logistics revolution more and more workers have found themselves locked into what amounts to a global supply chain gang. These chains, however, can be broken. Along with their interconnectivity, their very time-bound tension makes them extremely vulnerable to worker action.”

And that vulnerability is increased by the fact that such supply chains depend on large amounts of fixed and sunk capital in the form of roads, rails, ports, warehouses, communication systems, equipment, and so on. Such past investments cannot be easily abandoned by firms without enormous damage to their profitability.


Far from being footloose, this provides, in Moody’s words, “a more or less stationary target for unionisation and collective action”. Indeed, Moody suggests that “logistics workers have at least as much leverage in the economy of today as autoworkers did in the 1970s”.

Moody also places confronting racism central to realising the new potential power of workers in the US. In part due to globalisation itself, the US working class — like the working class across the advanced industrial economies — is more ethnically diverse today than four decades ago. Black, Asian and Latino people made up over a third of the US population by 2010 compared with 20 percent in 1980 and workers from these groups make up 35 percent of the employed working class. The new logistics clusters in and around the major urban centres in particular draw on such workers:

“Blacks, Latinos, Asians, including immigrants, composed 15-16 percent of the workers in production, transportation, and material moving occupations as well as in service occupations in 1981 now make up close to 40 percent of each of these broad occupational groups… African Americans make up almost half of the warehouse workforce in the Chicago area and Latinos in the Los Angeles and New York-New Jersey clusters.”

As Moody stresses this means that for union organising to be successful it will have to address racial and gender inequalities, for example around pay disparities; something that is limited where unions adopt a routinist approach that doesn’t seek to confront employers.

Moody’s argument not only insists the working class still exists but that its structural capacity to organise and paralyse production has grown as the restructuring and consolidation of capital has created a “new terrain” for the class struggle. Such a case is highly welcome to socialists who argue that workers possess the collective power to not just challenge capital but to break it.

On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War by Kim Moody is published by Haymarket, £15.99