Labor today

About 80 countries in the world set aside May 1 every year to honor the working class. In the United States, however, Labor Day is celebrated not in May but on the first Monday of September, so as not to confuse it with International Workers’ Day.  Ironically, International Workers’ Day began as a way of commemorating the May 4, 1886, massacre at Haymarket Square in Chicago of workers who were peacefully rallying for an eight-hour working day.  In the half-century that followed that gruesome event, the labor movement rapidly grew and gained enough strength to become the backbone of international socialism.

But much has changed in the organization of economic production since then. The changes led to the massive emasculation of the working class movement, greatly undermining its promise as the harbinger of a more equal and rational society.  At the height of its power, organized labor in the United States constituted one-third of the labor force. Today, union membership is reportedly down to about 7 percent.

Perhaps no one foresaw the changes that have come with capitalism more accurately than Marx and Engels.  In their joint work, “The Communist Manifesto,” they wrote: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society….  All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

As capitalism unceasingly disturbs the conditions of production, so is the working class compelled to adjust its methods of engagement with capital if only to defend its historic gains.  “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe.  It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

Unfortunately, these prophetic words of Marx and Engels about the globalization of capital had little to say about the future of the labor movement.  The recent history of the latter has been, in contrast to the global spread and consolidation of capital, one of unremitting dispersal, disorganization and destabilization.

I first became aware of these tendencies when, as a graduate student researching the organization of work on the Manila waterfront, I saw the effects of the introduction of container shipping on dockworkers.  Almost everywhere in the world, waterfront workers had been, up until the mid-’60s, the most organized and the most militant in the labor movement.

Then the containers came. Shippers began dispensing with the services of dockworkers by loading their cargo into steel containers in warehouses far away from the waterfront.  Worse, the huge and heavy containers were being loaded onto waiting vessels by gigantic machines operated by a single worker rather than by gangs of stevedores.  Overnight, dockworkers lost their function and their unions came crashing down.

The new technologies similarly decomposed the production systems for countless commodities. Parts started to be sourced from various countries, even as their assembly into finished products was being automated.  Labor has had a hard time catching up with the pace of new technology and with the extraordinary ability of capital to scan the face of the earth for raw materials and cheap docile labor.  Any move to organize labor in these new segmented sectors is either quickly suppressed and/or met with a threat to pull out and relocate elsewhere.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rapidly growing business process outsourcing industry.  The services offered are highly segmented, and workers are hired on a fixed contract that carry little prospect of long-term engagement.  I have heard of attempts to unionize BPO workers, but I have yet to hear stories of successful organizing in this sector.  Again, the issue boils down to the unmatched capacity of capital to move everywhere, as Marx predicted, and to threaten workers with sudden closure of operations.

Even more pernicious than labor contractualization in its effects on labor is the Philippines’ own version, locally known as “casualization.”  We may observe the latter particularly in shopping malls, where sales personnel are routinely hired as temporary workers for a few months, dismissed before they qualify as regular employees, and then rehired for another few months.  This way they receive no other entitlements apart from their measly wages.

Management hires so many of them that it can easily fire anyone for being recalcitrant or, worse, for talking about forming or joining an independent union.  In the developed countries, this form of engagement is prohibited, and employers are compelled to pare down the number of personnel to the barest minimum.

Occurring simultaneously with these developments has been the globalization of the market. It is today far cheaper to import from China than to locally produce the things we need.  A walk through any SM store would instantly confirm this.  But the ultimate price we pay for the penchant to import is the shutting down of our own factories, the bankruptcy of our own farmers, and our chronic failure to develop our productive forces.  Unlike the United States that only needs to print more money to pay for imports, we export our people and meekly accept the inferior roles that, in general, the world economy assigns to them.