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Latin American Perspectives

Hegemony and the U.S. Working Class

Dídimo Castillo Fernández Latin American Perspectives 2011 38: 71 originally published online 20 January 2011 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X10390620

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Hegemony and the U.S. Working Class

by

Dídimo Castillo Fernández Translated by Richard Stoller

The labor movement in the United States entered into crisis in the mid-1970s as the economy moved from a manufacturing to a service base. The decline of the manufactur- ing sector has led to a significant reduction in union participation and living standards from their peak in the 1960s to their current low point. The current economic crisis may produce changes in union structures. The future of the U.S. labor movement depends on its capacity to recruit new members, particularly among the women, young people, and ethnic groups that have recently entered the labor market.

Keywords:  Neoliberalism, Economic restructuring, Working class, Unions, United States

If class war is continual in capitalist society, there is no doubt that in recent decades in the United States it has taken a much more virulent form.

—John Bellamy Foster

The United States does not have a widely recognized class structure. The so-called American Dream rests upon the idea of a meritocratic social system organized in terms of work competence, individual attributes, and social rewards. 1 At least for the three decades immediately following World War II, the United States was essentially a middle-class country, with relatively open opportunity structures and effective mechanisms for participation that facili- tated upward mobility. The adoption of a neoliberal model in the mid-1970s attacked the quality of employment, polarized income distribution, and wors- ened the living conditions of workers. The United States is currently experi- encing outright social regression and is no longer the “promised land.” The working class, composed of workers in industrial activities, services, and agricultural labor, represents an important part of the less-skilled and lower-waged labor force. Technological change (both the incorporation of new production technologies and the restructuring of production and reorganiza- tion of work) and deindustrialization (the movement of labor from the second- ary to the tertiary sector), with a corresponding weakening of unions, have led

Dídimo Castillo Fernández is a professor in the department of political and social sciences of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, coordinator of the U.S. Studies Work Group of the Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, and the editor of Estados Unidos: La crisis sistémica y las nuevas condiciones de legitimación (2010). Richard Stoller is coordinator of selection and international programs at Schreyer Honors College, Pennsylvania State University.

LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 177, Vol. 38 No. 2, March 2011 71-85 DOI: 10.1177/0094582X10390620 © 2011 Latin American Perspectives

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to a profound crisis of legitimacy and loss of hegemony for the traditional working class. The general living conditions of the population, however supe- rior to conditions in most of the rest of the world, have stagnated or even decayed over the past few decades. With the deterioration in the quality of employment and the increase in income inequality (Castillo, 2007), social inequality has increased and with it poverty for the vulnerable segments of the population. The capitalist crisis of the mid-1970s introduced several changes that impacted the social and political conditions of the U.S. working class. Technological innovations systematically reduced the importance of human labor in the productive process to the point that it is possible to imagine “the end of the working class, and of work itself” (Rifkin, 1996: 23). Meanwhile, there was actual deindustrialization—the closing of factories and the rise of production in regions and countries with cheaper labor. Both changes contrib- uted to a political disarticulation of the working class. The U.S. working class has been extensively studied, but there are still questions about its ideology and political organization. It is not a consistent agent of change: despite a relatively long history of working-class struggle, it has not developed and propagated a solid union organization that is capable of defending its economic, social, and political interests. In the mid-1980s Gordon, Edwards, and Reich (1986) asked some important questions: Why have U.S. workers been so inactive politically? Why have unions suffered a decades-long decline in membership and in their cultural and political image? Why haven’t workers been able to create a political party to represent their demands and class interests? Why have those demands remained so margin- alized? Part of the problem is that unions in the United States operate under a pragmatic model that separates activism at the workplace or enterprise level from wider political activity tied to the two hegemonic parties, neither of which is built on the representation of working-class interests. The weakening of traditional working-class organizations is nothing new, but it has accelerated over the past few decades. Gordon, Edwards, and Reich (1986: 16–18) note that this situation derives partly from those organizations’ internal divisions along economic, political, and cultural lines:

One cannot understand the current divisions in the U.S. working class without taking into account the character and effects of labor segmentation and of the

structural and qualitative differences between jobs as well as between the labor

markets by which workers earn their

created and reproduced material divisions among workers that have curbed the development of a unified working class movement.

Labor segmentation has

An additional factor is the permeability of the U.S. political system—the ability of its elites to co-opt union organizations on behalf of the ruling bourgeoisie (Pozzi, 2003). In modern societies class structures are usually based on occupation (Atria, 2004; Portes and Hoffman, 2003). To be sure, “social class” is not the same as “occupation,” but, as González (1992: 100) notes, “it seems clear, in any event, that the empirical construction of class is increasingly tied up with occupation.” According to González, “a frequent operationalization of class consists of

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Castillo   /   HEGEMONY   AND   THE   U.S.   WORKING  CLASS        73

viewing professional and technical occupations as higher-class, other white- collar workers as middle-class, and manual occupations as working-class.” The indicators of social class most frequently used in empirical studies are tied to occupational categories. In this study I use, as a surrogate for the working class, the category of “private wage workers” in the Current Population Survey, produced yearly by the University of Minnesota.

NEOLIBERALISM, RESTRUCTURING OF PRODUCTION, AND THE NEW WORKING CLASS

The neoliberal economic model was a response to the 1970s crisis of accu- mulation in productive activities and the need to return to former levels of profitability. The restructuring of productive processes, the flexibilization of work, and the development of speculative financial activities were all focused on this goal. As Wallerstein (2005: 207) has observed, the current crisis in the United States stems from the contradictions of this economic model with regard to the three principal components of the cost of production: the cost of labor, the cost of investments and infrastructure, and the tax burden. Wallerstein argues that, contrary to the assumptions of those obsessed with “competitiveness,” throughout capitalism’s history the cost of all three of these factors has con- stantly increased, impacting the profitability of capitalist firms:

Not only am I skeptical about claims of increased “efficiency” by producers, but I would argue that the curve has been heading downward. All of the so-called triumphs of productive efficiency are merely efforts to flatten out that down- ward trend. [In this regard] one can view the whole neoliberal offensive of the last two decades as a gigantic effort to put the brakes to the increasing costs of production, first by reducing the cost of salaries and taxes and then by reducing the costs of inputs via technological advances.

In political terms, the rise of neoliberalism was the result of the political defeats suffered by the left during the 1960s (Petras, 2000). During this period the capitalist class undertook a fierce campaign against the social advances of the working class on a global level. It was a period of strong offensives and heavy defeats for the popular sectors. Finally, the fall of the Soviet system eliminated the counterweight to capitalism. In this regard the origins of neo- liberalism are not so much technological or strictly economic as political and social. The end of the so-called cold war opened up a new era of competition for global hegemony between the principal capitalist countries, but the United States was able to impose its hegemonic project relatively easily. Neoliberalism not only introduced important changes in the realms of pro- duction and labor relations but also transformed the class structure. National bourgeoisies were displaced by export and financial bourgeoisies tied to transnational capital, and the working class, previously composed largely of industrial workers, was disarticulated, its members relegated to the service sector, the informal sector, and self-employment. These processes were char- acterized by the deterioration of a culture of physical production, the surge of the tertiary sector, and the combination of consumerism and speculative

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financial practices (Beinstein, 2008) and by an assault on labor stability via deregulation and the loosening of employment ties. These latter changes were aimed at the reduction of wage costs and the strengthening of capitalist profit in a context of increasing international competition. In the United States the sectoral structure of the labor market experienced two substantial changes: the loss of industrial employment, which was gener- ally more stable, better paid, and covered by benefits and regulations, and (linked to the first change) the growth of tertiary activities and the resulting deterioration in the quality of employment. In contrast to Europe, the United States is degenerating into a society of markedly polarized classes. Its labor model, praised until recently for its relatively low levels of unemployment, has long been criticized for its relative lack of regulation and its wage inequality. In the United States as in many countries of Latin America, the working class experienced a period of political empowerment between the end of World War II and the late 1960s and even the early 1970s. Labor unions played an important role in the struggle for civil rights and the improvement of living conditions. Later, during the Reagan era, the initial efforts at resistance by the working class “ended in defeat and demoralization” (Rodríguez, 2005: 90). The working class underwent a profound and prolonged structural crisis. During the following years and decades “workers were unable to reverse the losses inflicted on them during the capitalist offensive that began in 1973” (Rodríguez, 2005: 95), starting with the systematic deterioration of wages and the direct offensive against unions. As Cornfield (2006: 29) notes, “the formal bifurcation of the labor movement derives from the restructuring of the national economy.” Neoliberalism, with all of its deregulatory baggage, represents a transfer of capital that seeks to recoup lost profits. Investment in productive activities is diverted to financial speculation or abroad. Deindustralization in the United States and elsewhere is linked to new strategies of accumulation in both devel- oped and less-developed countries. In the new competitive environment capital flows to new regions within a country and to new countries, seeking competitive advantage and creating new poles of development. Certainly deindustrialization is not a new phenomenon, 2 but the shift from

a secondary to a tertiary economy has gone faster than anyone expected, with

a systematic decline in the proportion of manufacturing employment. In the opinion of Daniel Bell (1977), the United States had entered a postindustrial capitalism characterized by technological development and the shift from production of goods to services. This meant not the disappearance of the worker but rather the rise of the “service worker” (Accornero and Magna, 1987). According to Castells (2004: 166), the greatest impact of deindustrializa- tion has been “the dismantling of the economic and organizational base of organized labor” and with it the weakening of worker organizations and of workers’ legitimate means of collective self-defense. After all, continues Castells, “it was the existence of powerful unions that explained the premium enjoyed by industrial wages over similarly skilled service wages.” Under today’s conditions, each worker now faces the negotiation process in isolation. Manufacturing employment generally increased from the early 1960s through the late 1970s and then declined, especially after the late 1990s (Figure 1). The overall drop in U.S. employment in recent years is largely the

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20 19 1998: 17.6 millon 18 17 16 15 14 2008: 13 13.4 millon 12
20
19
1998:
17.6 millon
18
17
16
15
14
2008:
13
13.4 millon
12
1959
1966
1973
1980
1987
1994
2001
2008
Workers (millions)
Figure 1. Manufacturing Employment, 1959–2008 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009a). 80 72,8 74,3 70 60
Figure 1. Manufacturing Employment, 1959–2008 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009a).
80
72,8 74,3
70
60
50
40
30
20
11,7
10,7
8,1
8,0
10
4,4
4,5
2,8
2,3
0,2
0,1
0
Independent
Private wage
Federal
State government
Local
Family labor
worker
earner
government
employee
government
employee
employee
%
1995 2008
1995 2008

Figure 2. Workers by Occupational Category, 1995–2008 (Current Population Survey, 1995; 2008).

result of this decline in manufacturing employment (Bivens, Scott, and Weller, 2003). In contrast, between 1995 and 2008 private salaried employment increased from 72.8 percent to 74.3 percent of all employment (Figure 2); despite the antistatist message of the neoliberal model, there was only a slight decline in federal employment and virtually no change at the state and local levels. Interestingly, the increasing lack of job security of work is not reflected in an increase in self-employment (which declined from 11.7 percent to 10.7 percent during this period). The increase in inequality and poverty in the United States is directly linked to these processes of deindustrialization and labor restructuring. The growing

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TABLE 1

Private Employment (percentage) by Sector, 1995–2008

Sector

1995

2008

Agriculture and fisheries Mining Construction Manufacturing Transport, communications, other utilities Commerce (wholesale and retail) Finance, insurance, and real estate Repair services Personal services Entertainment and recreation services Professional services

1.7

1.8

0.6

0.6

5.4

7.1

21.5

14.6

6.5

5.7

24.9

24.6

7.5

7.6

7.2

8.3

4.0

3.4

2.1

2.7

18.6

23.7

Source: Current Population Survey (1995; 2008).

precariousness of work not only eroded the cohesion of workers in the production process but also favored intensive exploitation of labor rather than technological innovation (which was employed only in isolated processes). In this sense labor restructuring actually led to “increasing inefficiency in inno- vative processes, which became ever more difficult and expensive [in the United States] compared with its principal global competitors” (Beinstein, 2008). In the past few years the sectoral composition of the U.S. economy has changed significantly. The industrial proportion of overall employment, which peaked at around 27 percent, was down to only 14 percent by 2000 (Rodríguez, 2005). Meanwhile the service sector has come to make up three- quarters of all private salaried employment. Private salaried employment in manufacturing declined from 21.5 percent to 14.6 percent between 1995 and 2008 while private employment in professional services increased from 18.6 percent to 23.7 percent of all private employment (Table 1). The “delocalizing” of production is part of the new global restructuring of production, in which profitability and competitiveness are inseparable. Wage differentials are the principal factor determining the logic of these decisions:

manufacturing and even service jobs are exported from developed countries to peripheral countries with relatively cheap labor (even for skilled and semi- skilled positions) and more flexible labor regulations. This outsourcing is especially important to larger U.S. corporations, which have shifted many of their ancillary processes to specialized firms. While the total amount of outsourced labor may still be small compared with the overall U.S. labor force, it is growing significantly because of the long- distance management opportunities made possible by technological innova- tion and by the privatization of public services that can then be outsourced (Anderson and Cavanagh, 2004). 3 Lower wages are the principal incentive for outsourcing, but other motivations include the weakness of the local working class and the looseness of labor legislation on everything from the length of the work day to working conditions and vacation time, lower energy costs, and proximity to raw-material inputs. Outsourcing has modified the functions of old and new peripheries. The delocalizing of production follows the same logic as the international migration of people except that, as Beck (2000: 39) notes,

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TABLE 2

Private Employment (percentage) by Type of Occupation, 1995–2008

Type of Occupation

1995

2008

Professionals and technicians Farmers Supervisors and owners Administrative and similar Salespeople Artisans Machine operators Domestic services Other services (not domestic) Farm workers Workers

16.5

20.5

0.1

0.1

13.3

12.7

18.3

18.4

7.3

7.2

10.6

10.1

13.9

11.3

1.0

1.1

12.9

13.6

0.8

0.7

5.3

4.3

Source: Current Population Survey (1995; 2008).

under the current system “people don’t migrate, jobs do.” Outsourcing has turned China and India into privileged destinations for production formerly done in the United States. Owners and managers claim to have only two options: reducing wages and labor conditions in the United States or shifting production elsewhere. 4 While the number of jobs directly lost to outsourcing is still relatively small, the constant threat of loss of employment has put workers in a vulnerable situation when faced with employer demands for flexibility and weakened workers’ ability to make wage demands. The decline in manu- facturing employment in the United States has coincided with the rise of both domestic and international outsourcing, but it would be a mistake to see out- sourcing as the sole factor behind that decline. The decreasing importance of the industrial sector in the United States raises the issue of declining participation by industrial workers in the labor structure and the increasing significance of “immaterial labor.” The proportion of workers in the category of “professionals and technicians” has increased while the share employed in “administrative and similar” work has remained constant and that of the more blue-collar categories has declined (overall, from 51.8 percent to 48.3 percent) (Table 2). Along with other developed and not so developed countries, the United States has experienced a notable increase in informal employment (Vogel, 2006). This informality is the fruit of a double logic tied to the economic transformations produced by globaliza- tion, being at once part of capital’s new flexible plans for labor and a survival strategy for workers excluded from formal labor. Informal labor is, for the most part, precarious labor, carried out in conditions inferior to formal labor for lower wages and largely devoid of benefits. The United States has also experienced a significant increase in low-quality formal employment, particu- larly part-time jobs (Carty, 1999: 94). During three decades of neoliberal poli- cies, the quality of employment has deteriorated, incomes have been polarized, social inequality has increased, and much of the population has been impoverished. The United States has lost the social mobility that made it exceptional. 5 During the 1950s and 1960s the U.S. working class achieved a satisfactory standard of living. The economic and political crisis of the mid-1970s and the

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adoption of neoliberalism put an end to that era of accomplishment. The increase in inequality, social exclusion, and poverty since that time is a prod- uct of the new deregulatory model. The introduction of labor flexibility con- tributed to the weakening of working-class movements as the United States returned to 1920s-era levels of income inequality. The distance between rich and poor has increased, and the regression is real. Between 1979 and 2000 wages for the lowest-paid tenth of salaried workers grew by less than 1 percent, while the highest-paid tenth saw their wages increase by 27 percent (Opportunity Agenda, 2006). Real wages have not merely stagnated but declined: according to data from De Sebastián (2004), average real weekly wages increased by 40 percent between 1949 and 1972 but declined by 10 percent between 1974 and 2002. During the latter period family income growth stagnated and pov- erty increased, touching 32.9 million people in 2001 compared with 24.5 million in 1978. Increasing income inequality since the mid-1970s has put the United States above all other developed countries in that regard (Atria, 2004). Income inequality has grown as the percentage of unionized workers has declined (Cason and Brooks, 2004). In the United States as elsewhere, union- ized workers receive higher wages than nonunion workers—around 25 percent higher, with an even higher differential for women and minorities (Graham, 2003). Likewise, the gap between male and female wages and between white and minority wages among unionized workers is lower than among non- union workers. In this context the increase in immigration (especially from Latin America) has had not only demographic and economic but also political effects on the labor market and worker organizing. Undocumented immigra- tion in particular has an adverse impact on the U.S. working class. The perse- cution of undocumented workers generates a situation in which the capitalist classes can impose unfavorable employment conditions—with low salaries and limited options for unionization—and exploit differences in language, race, and national origin to foment divisions among workers and prevent organizing. Under these circumstances, workers end up focusing more on their ethnic identities than on their shared situation as workers.

THE NEW REALITIES OF THE U.S. LABOR MOVEMENT

The labor movement in the United States goes back almost to the beginnings of the republic. The first workers’ federation was formed in 1834, and the movement grew only slowly during the following decades. Only in the twentieth century, with the expansion of industrial activity carried out by large firms, did the union movement become more consolidated and influential nationally. The crisis of the 1930s, with mass unemployment, had a negative impact on union affiliation, but World War II brought an increased demand for industrial labor and with it renewed growth in the union movement as mani- fested by the number of unionized workers and the character of union demands and mobilizations. According to Reuther (2006), “more strikes than ever before occurred during 1946, and unprecedented numbers of workers were involved.” The 1950s set a new path for workers’ organizations. The integration of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial

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26 24 22 20 18 16 14 12 10 1973 1978 1983 1988 1993 1998
26
24
22
20
18
16
14
12
10
1973
1978
1983
1988
1993
1998
2003
2008
Percentage of all workers

Figure 3. Unionization Rates, 1973–2008 (Mishel, Bernstein, and Shierholz, 2009; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009b).

Organizations (CIO) in 1955 broadened the scope of collective action in support of unionized labor. The wages of unionized workers reached unprecedented levels during this decade, as did the gap between union and nonunion wages in comparable jobs. Also noteworthy were achievements such as the 40-hour week, paid vacations, sick leave, and employer-provided health insurance. The union movement’s achievements on behalf of worker well-being during the 1950s and 1960s were considerable. In the mid-1970s circumstances changed substantially, although the unions initially refused to retreat from political activism. With the adoption of the neoliberal model and the deindustrialization process pushed by the capitalist sectors in response to the declining rate of profit, unions experienced a sig- nificant decline in membership that reduced their ability to defend workers’ interests. In contrast, this period saw an increase in nonindustrial unions, especially those in the public sector, with their own mobilization models and legitimate demands specific to their positions in the state bureaucracy. The strength of the organized working class ebbed considerably as it was reduced and fragmented. Union membership declined from one-third of the labor force in 1955 to less than one-sixth in 1995 (Figure 3; Reuther, 2006). The working class’s loss of relative hegemony, as measured by the reduc- tion in union representation, is a general phenomenon of developed econo- mies in recent decades, but it is in the United States that this disarticulation has been the deepest. To a great extent the decline of manufacturing deter- mined the declining unionization rate, even as the increase in public-sector unionization partially compensated (and continues to compensate) for the decline. The overall erosion was enormous, considering that between 1973 and 2006 the unionization rate fell by half—and it fell further between 1995 and 2008, from 10.5 percent to 7.8 percent (Current Population Survey, 1995; 2008), perilously close to irrelevance. Since the growth of the union movement was closely tied to the expansion of manufacturing, especially between 1945 and the early 1960s, the restructuring

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80        LATIN   AMERICAN  PERSPECTIVES

of the economy in favor of the service sector eroded the movement’s principal base of support. This especially impacted the unions that originated in the old CIO, whose social and political interests were not always well served under the AFL-CIO (Seipes, 2005). In addition, the heterogeneous, segmented, and unregulated nature of the service sector helped employers to impede union- ization (Cornfield, 2006). Currently a large part of the unionized workforce is in more stable parts of the economy, the public sector being the dominant example. In the United States as elsewhere in the developed world, supply and demand in the labor market is only part of the explanation for the deteriora- tion of the labor movement. Many have recommended a return to the origins of U.S. unionism by recruiting and organizing new members (Cason and Brooks, 2004). In this regard the relevant question is what kinds of workers can be unionized—white-collar workers or the most vulnerable and unpro- tected workers, disproportionately female, immigrant, and of color. Either emphasis would involve populations that have experienced large-scale changes in recent years. From a global perspective, one of the most noteworthy characteristics of the U.S. labor force in the second half of the twentieth century was the increasing presence of women and their improved education profile. The female employ- ment rate increased from 32 percent to 56.6 percent between 1950 and 2006, while the male rate declined from 82 percent to 70.1 percent (Allegretto, 2007). The percentage of women with university degrees increased from 11.2 percent in 1970 to 32.6 percent in 2004, twice the male rate of increase (Luce and Brenner, 2006). Occupational segregation by gender declined significantly dur- ing this period, driven by the population of college-educated women, a group whose real incomes grew by 31 percent between 1973 and 2003 compared with only 17 percent for comparably educated men. Nevertheless, according to Luce and Brenner (2006), “although the gender wage gap has been closing, this is not because women’s average wages are rising. The gap with male earn- ings continues to close because men’s wages are falling faster than women’s.” Male union membership is still greater than female, but the recent declines have left women in a relatively stronger position: in 2007 male union member- ship was 13 percent compared with 11.1 percent for women, a significant clos- ing of the gap since the early 1980s (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008a). During the past few decades women have maintained an active and growing role in U.S. labor unions, constituting 45 percent of the membership in 2007; if recent trends continue, “women will be a majority of the unionized workforce by 2020” (Schmitt, 2008). The situation is more complex and contradictory for young people, who are the most disadvantaged in the current circumstances of the U.S. labor market. The unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24 was 12.8 percent in 2008, three times the rate for those over 25 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008b). Young people, besides having relatively low rates of participation in the labor force 6 and high unemployment, are more likely to be temporary workers or last- hired and therefore first-fired and in positions that have the lowest wages (Carty, 1999). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2007), only 4.4 percent of workers between ages 16 and 24 belong to a union, compared with 13.3 percent for those over 24. Young workers who belong to unions enjoy substantial

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wage benefits, earning an average of $516 per week compared with $418 for comparable nonunionized young workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008a). In recent years the struggles of Hispanic immigrant workers in the United States for civil and labor rights have come to the forefront, raising questions about the role of unions in those struggles. Immigrant workers figure heavily in employers’ strategies for controlling labor generally, and the union move- ment now sees recently arrived Mexican, Latin American, and Asian workers as vital to its success. According to Cason and Brooks (2004), the greatest labor victories in recent years have been won largely by immigrant workers in ser- vices and manufacturing. Immigrants are the fastest-growing sector of the labor force as well as the most coherent in terms of social and workplace- related interests. In 2007 24 million people, fully 16.7 percent of the U.S. labor force aged 16 and over, were born abroad. Hispanic immigrants were half of all immigrants and 7.4 percent of the total labor force (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008c; Robinson, 2006). The proportion of immigrants in all wage positions grew from 12.4 percent to 18.2 percent between 1995 and 2008 (Current Population Survey, 1995; 2008).

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

Looking at the changes in labor relations, the deterioration of the conditions of employment, and the declining presence of the union movement, it is hard to argue that the U.S. working class is experiencing one of its better eras. It remains to ask what this means in terms of the forms of political domination exercised by the hegemonic class, since the decline in social conditions repre- sents in some sense a loss of hegemony for the United States generally. The globalization of manufacturing has promoted an increasing redistribution of labor around the world (Chanda, 2004). This change may have important and unexpected political consequences in the medium and long terms. As Silver (2004) has noted, this new situation is in fact a double displacement: of produc- tion itself and of the working class and its forms of protest. The semiperipher- ies and peripheries of yesteryear are now the zones of social and political turbulence. Changes in the U.S. economic structure, in particular deindustrialization, have been the determining factor in the weakening of unions. With the emer- gence of neoliberalism and the associated increasing mobility of capital, the working class was disarticulated. In particular, the rise of precarious and informal labor and outright unemployment fragmented the labor force and limited its capacity for collective action in support of working-class interests (Petras, 2005a). The decline in union membership rates is directly connected to wage levels but also to the very existence of jobs with benefits such as health care coverage, pension, sick leave, and vacations. The weakening of unions limits collective negotiation, leaving workers in a vulnerable position facing an unstable labor market. The model of labor competition fostered by neolib- eralism works against cooperation and solidarity, promoting the fracture of groups and the loss of class consciousness. Petras (2005b) blames the current crisis of unionism in the United States and much of the developed world on union leaders’ submissive and collaborationist

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stance in their dealings with employers and on the loss of identity among base-level labor organizers. For Petras this is not a new problem but one that has increased in recent years and is a key factor in declining union member- ship. Whatever the causes, the U.S. labor movement is passing through a difficult stage in its history. The current economic crisis may produce changes in union structures 7 as unions are faced with the choice of reconstituting themselves socially and politically or disappearing from the national scene in the short to medium term. The future of the labor movement in the United States depends on its capacity to recruit and organize new members who belong to diverse social and economic sectors around common working- class interests. This will require special attention to the integration of the women, young people, and ethnic groups, particularly immigrant communi- ties both documented and undocumented, that have recently entered the labor market. Analyses of the current political situation of the United States should not be restricted to examinations of the new (as of 2009) administration’s obvi- ous commitment to the country’s dominant economic classes; the election was, after all, a legitimate expression of U.S. society. The election of an African-American president in a country that was so late in abolishing slav- ery is a noteworthy event. While it is true that the Obama administration will be dominated by traditional elites—power is not distributed evenly throughout society but is concentrated in the hands of small groups—in the current situation there may be new opportunities for working-class organi- zations to expand their presence and activities. As Barack Obama himself has noted, the United States cannot have a solid middle class without a strong labor movement.

NOTES

1. The essence of the “American Dream” is the possibility of each generation’s achieving a

higher standard of living than its predecessor. According to Gordon, Edwards, and Reich (1986: 19), there is little recognition of a “working class” or of “class struggle.”

2. Bell’s (1977) concept of the “post-industrial society” actually dates to the early 1960s.

3. The outsourcing of services has a long history in the United States, but new information

technologies make it much more attractive today (Anderson and Cavanagh, 2004: 1). As many as 14 million U.S. jobs are susceptible to domestic or international outsourcing in the name of

reducing the cost of services and increasing the competitiveness of firms.

4. According to Kirkegaard (2007: 8), the “heated public debate” about international outsourc-

ing has been “vastly overblown”; he cites Bureau of Labor Statistics findings that only 4 percent of manufacturing layoffs can be traced to international outsourcing.

5. According to Foster (2006), “new statistical studies have demonstrated that intergenera-

tional class mobility in the United States is far below what was previously supposed and that the United States is a more class-bound society than its major Western European counterparts, with

the exception of Britain.”

6. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2005),

“one possible reason behind the fall in labour force participation among youths is competition from low skilled immigrants.”

7. This would not be a novel development: the resolutions of past economic crises in the

United States “have led to structural changes in the configuration of the working class” (Gordon,

Edwards, and Reich, 1986: 17).

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