‘LOW WAGE CAPITALISM’
Labor struggles since 1980 and strategies for the coming period
Published Sep 1, 2008 12:01 AM
Following is Part 2 of a paper by Fred Goldstein, a member of Workers
World Party’s Secretariat, submitted as a contribution to the discussion
of the 17th International Communist Seminar held in Brussels, Belgium, on May
16-18. It is a summary of the third and concluding section of a book entitled
“Low-Wage Capitalism, Colossus with Feet of Clay,” soon to be
Part 1 of the paper, which appeared in the last issue of Workers World,
concluded with a survey of the forces in the U.S. that could serve as a basis
for a resurgence of the class struggle, including 15 million workers in
organized labor and another 50 million workers who want to join
This potential force includes the masses of unorganized workers, the
under-employed, and the unemployed struggling to survive. It includes the
communities of workers and their families being devastated by home foreclosures
and evictions; the groups that have been fighting for immigrant rights; the
“living wage” movement; the struggles for universal health care;
activists fighting homelessness and demanding affordable housing; neighborhood
groups fighting to improve the schools.
It also includes the anti-war movement; groups fighting to save the environment
from devastation by corporate polluters; and opponents of police brutality, the
death penalty and the prison-industrial complex.
Above all, class unity can only be attained by supporting the thousands of
groups around the country—local, regional and national—that have
been fighting against racism and national oppression, sexism and gender
Plant occupations and the right to a job
New strategies and tactics are needed for the crisis. The question is how to
put a stop to the present bloodletting of layoffs by the bosses. The issue
before the working class and the unions especially is: do workers have a right
to their jobs? As the creators of the wealth of the bosses, do they not have
equity, do they not have property rights to the wealth that they have created?
By what right can they be deprived of that property?
The labor of the workers has created the wealth that has been invested and
reinvested over and over again to create the plants, the offices, the mines,
the hospitals, etc. Having created all this property, workers should have a
property right to their jobs. In simpler terms, workers have “sweat
equity” in their jobs and in the workplace as well.
Workers have every right to prevent the bosses from depriving them of their
jobs. This is simply workers defending their property rights. The right to
occupy a workplace to prevent closings and layoffs must be established as a
fundamental right of the working class. Possession of the plants should be
viewed as nothing more than asserting the property rights of the creators of
the wealth that built those plants. The capital of the owners is nothing more
than accumulated labor of the workers, for which the workers have not been
paid. Seen in this light, the seizure of the workplace by the workers in
defense of their jobs is nothing more than their laying claim to property that
they have created.
Challenging the capital-labor framework
In order to fight management, it is necessary to reject the ideological
framework of management. Even within the framework of the capitalist system,
the workers in their present situation cannot move forward in any significant
way unless they challenge the labor-capital framework. The workers will have to
challenge some of the basic prerogatives of capital and the ideology of the
supremacy of the capitalist market and the rights of capitalist property.
Indeed, when the UAW workers seized the plants in Flint, Mich., when the
hundreds of thousands of workers carried out successful sit-downs in 1936 and
1937, they challenged the property rights of the bosses. It was the only way
they could win.
Over the past three decades, the bosses have been using the argument of the
need to “remain competitive” as their wedge against the workers in
the struggle for concessions. However, in the unfolding economic crisis, their
argument for “competitiveness” may be superseded by their assertion
that shutdowns and layoffs are necessary because the company must maintain
profitability and prevent losses.
The question of profitability must be subordinated to the right of the workers
to jobs and income. The workers have the right to take over their workplaces
and operate them with government or corporate subsidies, if necessary. Workers
have the right to demand jobs programs to deal with their crisis as a
The capitalist government gives hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to
the military-industrial complex, to corporate firms for research and
development, to build infrastructure for corporations, and so on. Workers have
a right to demand that this largesse, this charity to the corporations, be
redirected to meet the needs of the workers in a crisis.
When the capitalist system utterly fails to meet the most elementary needs of
survival for millions of workers, then the workers have the right to deal with
the crisis by defying capitalist methods and beginning to establish their own
legal rights and their own power on the ground. This will require struggle but
it will also demand that the workers get beyond the basic assumptions of
capitalism so that their struggle can be effective.
To continue with the question of class-conscious ideology, consider the
universal argument of the capitalist class against the workers about the need
“to remain competitive.” Why do the bosses constantly bring this up
in labor negotiations (assuming the workers have a union)? It is a clear
statement that the one who wins the capitalist competition is the one with the
lowest labor costs. Thus, in order for the capitalist in company A to beat out
the capitalist in company B, the workers in company A have to out-compete the
workers in company B by allowing their wages to be cut below the others.
Accepting the bosses’ notion that labor must subordinate its demands to
the overriding necessity of capital to remain competitive and profitable is a
self-defeating ideology. The workers cannot be guided by it. Such arguments
completely tie the fate of the workers to the perils of the capitalist
To unravel this problem ideologically, it is first necessary to restate the
fundamental Marxist truth that the substance of profit is surplus value. And
surplus value consists of unpaid labor. Profits are directly proportional to
the unpaid labor of the workers. Higher profits mean that more surplus value is
extracted from the hides of the workers. If the workers are paid more for their
labor, the profits of the bosses are lowered proportionally. This absolutely
reciprocal relationship is what lies behind the irreconcilable antagonism
between workers and bosses.
To hold the workers responsible for the profitability of capital is to demand
that they agree to intensify their own exploitation to solve the crisis of
their exploiters. If this is explained to the workers, they can easily
There are times when concessions may have to be given, because the situation is
very unfavorable for the workers. But the idea that concessions must be made so
the boss can be “more competitive” chains the fate of the workers
to the capitalist market.
The question should be posed: Why must the exploited sacrifice their wages,
their benefits, their working conditions and their very jobs in order to
maintain the continuous prosperity of the exploiters, who have lived off the
wealth created by the workers in the first place?
Class-consciousness and the fightback
The strategy of class-wide fightback, concepts such as a right to a job and the
right to occupy workplaces, the need for international class solidarity with
oppressed workers around the world and the need for the workers to see
themselves as a world class united by their common exploitation—such
concepts cannot be spontaneously arrived at. The intervention of a
class-conscious revolutionary vanguard that understands and can promote the
ultimate goal of getting rid of exploitation altogether, abolishing capitalism,
is indispensable to the struggle.
It was Lenin, the architect of the first successful socialist revolution in
history, who fought for this conception at the beginning of the 20th century.
He argued for the creation of a revolutionary party, which became known as the
Lenin argued strenuously for bringing socialist, political class-consciousness
to the workers as a highly important task, along with carrying on economic
agitation, strikes and demonstrations. He put forward all this in the
groundbreaking pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?” written in
Socialism the only way out
Nothing can change the facts about the overriding contradiction governing all
of modern society. This contradiction is between, on the one hand, the private
ownership of the world’s vast means of production by a tiny minority of
fabulously wealthy corporate financiers who operate the entire system for
profit and, on the other, the highly developed, interdependent, socialized,
global production process set in motion 24 hours a day by the labor of the
world’s working class under increasingly onerous conditions.
Nothing can change the fact that capitalism has entered a new stage in which
more and more layers of the working class are pushed into conditions of poverty
and near poverty and face job loss, eviction, foreclosure, hunger, health
crises—all clearly arising out of the capitalist profit system.
It is scientifically correct to assert that socialism is the antithesis of
capitalism, and is its only form of negation. There is no other historically
possible resolution of capitalism’s fundamental contradictions.
Socialized production must be brought into correspondence with socialized
ownership, thus enabling the socially planned use of the world’s
productive and natural resources.
Imperialism in the age of the scientific revolution is expanding and deepening
exploitation and oppression on an unprecedented scale. What is referred to as
“globalization” is in fact the expanded export of capital and the
use of cutthroat trade by giant transnational corporations to pile up huge
profits at the expense of the people of the world. In short, it is a phase of
intensification and widening of the imperialist plunder of the globe.
This process of expanded global exploitation, which is proceeding at breakneck
speed due to modern high technology, has profound consequences at home and
abroad and is rapidly developing the groundwork for the next phase of the world
historic struggle for socialism.
“Low-Wage Capitalism” will be published this fall. For
information and to donate to the cost of publication, contact the publisher:
World View Forum, 55 W. 17th St., 5th floor, New York, NY 10011.
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