The Politics of Poverty Work: Part 1

The West Coast communist formation Advance the Struggle recently published a new piece reflecting on the current fast food and minimum wage struggles taking place across the US. In it, they make a solid, if limited, attempt to understand the current terrain of struggle and the politics contained therein.

Much of the essay is built around economic questions: inflation, unemployment, profit, etc. This is an important start, but a reader might be left with some technical economic questions. I was happy to see the quote from Marx’s Capital, Vol. 3 regarding wages and inflation, but that only begins the argument; it doesn’t end it outright. For instance, what is the elasticity relationship between wages and prices? Is this elasticity universal among firms or do different forms of commodity production have different elasticity ratios? And what of profits? The article uses the categories of “profit” and “net income” interchangeably. Profit must include funds that will be invested, not only consumed. Is this the same as net income?

These questions, among many others, are of a technical nature and I would suggest those interested turn to an excellent piece published by the formation Unity and Struggle on their website, and while we must begin answering these questions sooner rather than later, these answers lie outside the scope of this essay. Here I want to address the political questions surrounding SEIU, the strengths of the Fight for $15 campaign and it weaknesses, as well as some potential alternatives.

The A/S piece did a good job beginning to lay out some of the economic questions, but what of the social terrain of fast food and minimum wage workers? Analyzing the social terrain is critical because it can help unite the objective conditions of a particular historical moment with the subjective possibilities of practical, programmatic struggle. It is the duty of Marxists to analyze each in order to help transform limited struggles for piecemeal economic reforms to a revolutionary struggle for political power by the working class.

One of the common arguments heard regarding an increased minimum wage is that fast food workers are mostly teen workers entering the job market for the first time. Is this case? Let’s look at some facts.

According to an article published June 9, 2014 by the New York Times, the average age of a minimum wage worker is 35 years old, with a whopping 88% of all minimum wage workers 20 years or older. In 1979, the percentage of teens was 27%, showing an increasing concentration of older workers as traditional blue collar jobs are either automated or globalized. Twenty-seven percent of current minimum wage workers also have children, with 19% of all children in the US benefiting from a minimum wage increase.

Further, 54% of low wage workers are full-time, with 32% working at least half-time (20-34 hrs/week). Women, who make up 48% of the work force, are overrepresented in low wage jobs at 55%. The NYT article goes on to point out that “[m]ost are white, but minorities are overrepresented” by 8% for Latinos and 4% for Black workers. Low-wage workers are also more educated than ever: 78% graduated high school, about 33% have some college and 10% of minimum wage workers have college degrees.

This demographic image of low-wage workers paints a powerful image of organizing potential. SEIU, facing an increasingly desolate situation for organized labor, saw this potential and decided to act. Advance the Struggle’s article points out, “SEIU rightly saw this glaring contradiction as a point of intervention.”

SEIU’s strategy of intervention has three key points:

  • Engage massive numbers of people in campaigns to raise wages.
  • Unite workers across campaigns to demonstrate a groundswell demand.
  • Drive the message that the way to get the economy going again is to put more spending in money in the hands of workers

The first point is (sadly) an important innovation in the modern labor movement: actually organizing masses of unorganized workers. It calls for an important degree of classic labor struggle, including “union organizing, inside our industries (e.g. airports, child care), beyond our industries (e.g. fast food, retail, etc.) and by other unions (e.g. Walmart).” Aside from the important but limited campaigns of the IWW, such organizing drives haven’t been heard of since the Justice for Janitors movement in the 90’s. Those workers, however, had largely already been union, but lost representation due to the subcontracting reorganization that industry had gone through. This new SEIU strategy calls for the penetration of labor organizing into the largely untouched industry of fast food, long written off as impossible to organize due to issues such as franchising and high turnover rates.

SEIU’s strategy also calls for Federal and state minimum wage increases. Five traditionally conservative states just passed new minimum wage legislation at the same time the GOP was taking full control of both branches of Congress. Local wage initiatives, like in Seattle and San Francisco, are also included under the first strategy point, as are Federal, state and local procurement policies and collective bargaining campaigns.

The tactics suggested to carry out the first strategy point aren’t important only because they are practical and proving effective, but because securing them fundamentally means drawing rank-and-file workers into concrete class activity. Even if the union organizing and collective bargaining are done in the most frustrating and bureaucratic manner (which, rumor has it, is the case), workers still must be drawn into the movement as workers in struggle. The wildfire spread of the minimum wage and fast food fight shows that workers are ready to stand up and fight back and SEIU is providing at least limited leadership and opportunity.

The second point seeks to unite these local struggles into a national movement. This component of the overall strategy is critical for Socialists because movements have a way of moving beyond the limits of its initial leadership. A national movement provides a critical space for socialists to intervene against the limits of SEIU.

The third point – getting the economy moving – is where A/S finds the greatest problem, referring to it as “the spoon full of tar in the jar of honey.” The argument is that this perspective promotes class collaborationism. “By such thinking,” the article says, “bosses and workers are a team, and breaking that harmony is destructive.” Though SEIU has a bad reputation for collaboration with bosses at the expense of their workers, this argument is a little tough to swallow.

True, SEIU is deploying a classical Keynsian trope: redistribute wealth, increase worker disposable income, consumption goes up, aggregate demand goes up, the economy moves forward. It is a very straightforward argument. And what of the Socialist response? It would be a mistake to simply invert the argument, to say that arguing to “get the economy moving” amounts to arguing to fire up capitalist exploitation.

It has been pointed out time and time again that Marx divided the commodity into the component parts of exchange value and use value. He went on to point out that the labor required to produce these commodities is also split into the component parts of abstract labor and concrete labor, respectively. This means that the “economy” writ large is also divided into the same component parts: an abstract economy developed out of the abstract labor that produces exchange value appropriated by capitalists as surplus value, and the concrete economy built on concrete labor that produces concrete use values like food and shelter.

Though each component part is distinct and stands in opposition to the other, they are inseparable; their relationship is dialectical. Correspondingly, the political conclusions follow class commitments. Both capitalists and workers want the economy to “get moving,” but for very different reasons. Capitalists seek surplus generated from the abstract component of the economy. Socialists seek the wealth generated by concrete labor to satisfy social need and empower individual growth and development.

Socialists, therefore, must argue not only that these minimum wage policies will “get the economy moving,” but indeed that the economy is in fact hemmed in by capitalism and can be only fully developed when the working class leads the economy. This is the only practical, principled way to apply a dialectical method as opposed to the mechanical response put forward by A/S.

However, SEIU, despite the strengths of its strategy and tactics, inevitably comes up against definite, critical limits. SEIU is a business union, tied down and hemmed in by particularly repressive U.S. labor law. This reality is no vulgar dismissal of the legal trade union form universally, but simply a recognition of SEIU’s particular limits. One particular conundrum demostrates these very real limits: the franchiser-franchisee relationship.

Because of SEIU’s relationship to labor law, the franchiser-franchisee relationship becomes a tremendous obstacle, particularly from the point of view of the rank-and-file workers. Both the franchiser and the franchisee use their relationship to deflect responsibility on the other. The franchiser argues that each franchisee is an independent owner/operator, solely responsible for wages and benefits. The franchisee, on the other hand, argues that he or she is almost entirely under the thumb of the big franchiser, with profit margins too slim to allow for a significant, across the board raise for employees.

This means that while each deflects immediate responsibility on the other, the muddiness of their legal relationship further complicates SEIU’s ability to clearly compel legal recognition. Who is to bargain with the union, the franchiser or the franchisee? While largely unsympathetic courts and bureaucrats work to (very) slowly resolve the issue, workers are left in limbo, with very few legal options to move forward independently.

These concrete legal barriers carry an initially economistic struggle into the political realm. Yet what political form is tied to SEIU’s business union form? None other than the Democratic Party, the very same party that lost the most recent midterm elections to a completely degenerate Republican Party. Still, voters turned out to pass very progressive legislation, including those minimum wage increases mentioned earlier, when they weren’t connected to the bankrupt brand of the Democratic Party.

As I pointed out in my essay titled “On Shutdowns and Party Politics,”

The Democrats, however, represent a paradox themselves. While still trying to maintain a functionally Keynsian political base, its leadership has capitulated to the logic and parameters of neoliberalism wholesale. With such a sharp contradiction between social composition and practical leadership activity, the Democrats not only are unable to mobilize their base consistently to fight, they actually work to demobilize and confuse their various constituencies. Making up the left wing of finance capital, the Democrats now float in the air, vulnerable to the most damnable and nauseating bouts of shameless opportunism.

SEIU and the Democrats are thus two sides of the same coin, products of the assault on the standards of living for working people and entirely beholden to paying lip service to a mild, semi-Keynsian renovation of a system wholly unwilling to renovate except under pain of death.

This leads to a stark contradiction. On one hand, SEIU’s strategy is based on both an accurate assessment of the contemporary moment as well as a practical plan of action with which to intervene. This has given the struggle for $15/hr minimum wage powerful historical content. Socialists and anti-capitalists would be abdicating their moral responsibility if they were to abstain from this struggle along petty sectarian lines.

However, the inverse of abstentionism – uncritical cheerleading – would be equally criminal. To ignore the very real obstacles presented by SEIU and the Democratic Party would be to leave low wage workers, the vast majority of whom are brand new to labor struggle, disoriented and vulnerable in the face of inevitable opportunism and betrayal from liberal forces. As powerful and relevant as the content of the minimum wage and fast food struggle is, the form that it is held into by SEIU is in the final result equally destructive to workers’ struggles.

The task now is for Socialists to fully engage the content of this moment while working to develop new forms of worker struggle: 15 Now, informal workers’ committees, renovated solidarity networks, independent rank-and-file unions and ultimately a fundamentally new Party capable of coordinating and leading these various component parts of this movement – as well as other movements – into a concerted political struggle for state power under the working class.

Let’s get to work.

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