Translation of an article from Wildcat no. 94, Spring 2013
We have witnessed decades of growth in traffic and for at least two decades we have seen that this growth has deteriorated our working conditions - and rendered something like 'working class' more and more invisible. Now we hear of security guards on strike bringing airports to a standstill; in the US, Walmart workers are on strike and dockers are blockading ports on the West-Coast; even the accident of the Costa Concordia in 2012 exposed the 'mass work' in the bellies of the high-class liners - what's going on? A revival of the working class? Struggling proletarians everywhere? A historical turning point?
In Germany during the last fifteen years, more and more people have been expelled from the system of working relations based on collective contracts and systems of social security (pension funds, health insurance, public education system) - which also includes representation through trade unions.
The Hartz1 laws have accelerated these developments drastically. More than one million people have been permanently on HartzIV since 2005, out of which 320,000 work full-time. For a short historical moment, the introduction of the Hartz laws resulted in unemployment, poverty and social exclusion becoming central issues of social discussion and confrontation e.g. the 'Monday' demonstrations in East Germany which expressed a confrontation with questions about what kind of conditions we want to live and work in this society. During this moment the radical left remained at the margins for too long and the DGB trade unions (with whose help the Hartz laws came into existence) were a massive obstruction to any further protests - the historical moment passed. Since the intensification of the global crisis it is more or less only Sarrazin2 who mentions this new proletariat - and depicts them as 'migrants, stupid and lazy'.
Most of these 'new poor' actually work. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005, Gerhard Schroeder put the Hartz legislation into the right context: "We have created the best low-wage sector in Europe"3. This low wage sector has expanded massively, reaching from precarious jobs (currently there are about one million people employed through temp agencies), day labour, 'small scale self-employment', small entrepreneurs to labour which is formally not registered as waged employment e.g. work-fare programs (1 Euro jobs, voluntary work etc.) and prison labour. Within this 'low wage sector' there are large contingents of (industrial) mass work, characterised by flexible and long working hours and an over-proportional employment of migrant workers. Apart from the increase in exports, these types of jobs - so-called 'simple', manual, repetitive, badly paid - is the only thing which 'booms' in Germany. And these jobs mark a decisive advantage of the German export industry: the wage difference between permanently employed skilled workers and temp workers is the highest within the EU.
The proletariat engaged in this new type of mass work is situated at many different locations of the global supply-chain, amongst others, at quite central inter-faces of the chain. The new mass work is precisely not a sector, but reaches across sectors: between unskilled manufacturing jobs, office and checkout work and manual tasks within logistics. Statistically most of this employment is counted as 'services'. Quantitatively the most significant sectors for this type of work will still be the classical sectors like care work, retail and catering - but during recent years, more rapid growth was registered amongst so-called 'production-related services', such as temp work within production or 'logistics' as an inter-face between production and transport (logistics companies taking over pre-assembly work etc.). In the newspeak of the economists, 'service provider' simply means 'supplier' or often just 'manual workers'.
During the last decades the big production plants - the strongholds of power of the mass worker - have been segmented and disjointed. This was only possible through the multiplication of transport work. During the 1980s there have been frequent waves of struggles in the transport sector, lead by 'professional groups'. These were basically the controllers (air traffic controllers, runway controllers), the drivers (trucks, rail, aeroplanes - less so ships) and the drivers of big machinery in the ports. They have proven that they are able to bring the transport chain to a standstill. They were not able to, and they did not have to overcome their professional boundaries. This is true for the truck drivers (who have the additional problem of small-entrepreneur-ism), as much as for train drivers, pilots etc.. Initially their position was strengthened by just-in-time production and 'storage halls on wheels' - even short work stoppages had a massive impact and often the mere threat to go on strike sufficed to obtain wage increases.
The technological attack since the 1980s has undermined the position of power of these qualified 'transport workers'. Simple manual labour, on the other hand, has been expanded - although during the first phase, the expansion went hand-in-hand with spacial dispersion. The proliferation of communication technologies (internet, mobile phone technology, GPS, ...) served as a means of control of this dispersed labour. At the same time previously exclusive professions like stewardesses or train drivers were turned into semi-skilled jobs. The working conditions in transport and logistics have set the standards for the now general conditions of the 'new proletariat'. Do the struggles in these sectors now indicate a general turn-around after years of being on the defensive? At any rate, the GDL strikes in 2007/08 were the first 'proletarian train drivers strikes' in Germany for a century.
Working conditions deteriorated not as a result of the 'free movement of the market'. In August 1981, when Ronald Reagan had the striking air-traffic controllers arrested and paraded in handcuffs and shackles he came out with a battle-cry against these 'professional groups' - and established a tendency to use the police and military against striking transport workers (trucker, dockers etc.) from then on. During recent years the military has been used against strikes in Greece (trucker, metro-drivers, ferries) and in Spain (air-traffic controllers). Since the decision of the federal constitutional court in August 2012 it is legal to use the German military within the national borders of Germany. Under this military threat, the job centre and state have fostered a booming temp work sector and drive this cheap labour towards the distribution centres and warehouse zones.
In the context of 'globalisation' huge corporations were created (centralisation), without the emergence of new spaces of mass, direct cooperation (concentration) on the workers' side. The usual mechanism on the workers' side (resistance of workers of a particular company or professional group) had little impact. The systemic risk within the global transport chains remained an empty threat for the time being.
In the US, where developments are some years ahead, this process has been reversing for about one and a half decades and bigger workers' concentrations have been re-emerging in particular places. The number of people employed in warehouses has increased five-fold between 1998 and 2006 and the warehouses continuously grow in size. Huge distribution centres take over more and more productive performances (re-work of faulty items, assembly, packaging, labelling etc.) There is an increase of 'functions' workers have to perform on one side and an increase of organic composition (automation) on the other.
There has also been a turning point regarding the tendency of struggles. In recent years we have seen an upswing of struggles in the huge assembly centres in China (Foxconn) and within the global transport sector. 'The first global traffic jam'4 in 2004 was a turning point. Workers are fed up with having to compensate for ailing infrastructure and bad organisation by having to improvise constantly and to extend their working-hours. In a historical moment, when capital is highly dependent on the cooperation of workers, workers increasingly refuse to cooperate. Capital can only dissolve the over-accumulation-crisis if it would be able to translate the knowledge and abilities of living labour into a technological leap forward. In a system which increasingly appears merely as control of individualised labour and coercion, we are witnessing a growing lack of willingness to 'collaborate'. The global traffic jam is, at first, only the negative, 'technical' expression of this refusal. But given that in the current historical constellation capital is forced to invert the tendency of decentralisation, we can get a glimpse of the potentiality of the global working class shining through the global jam. Thus our attention towards the distribution centres and their spacial concentration.
During the phase of 'globalisation' the world-wide availability of goods and information further increased, but the social content of the capitalist promise of mobility contracted: labour migration is partially combated in military terms; more and more people are excluded from social mobility. Spacial mobility was given a bad name due to ecological reasons and became more expensive. By now the expansion of traffic also meets 'natural' limits and in the old 'developed countries' individual mobility also decreases due to other reasons ('peak travel', 'peak car').
For several years capitalist mobility is confronted on a global scale by movements against big transport-infrastructure projects and power plants. Historically, during phases of crisis, struggles have initially transferred themselves from the sphere of production to the sphere of 'circulation'. In these movements against transport-infrastructure projects we don't see an inversion of this tendency, given that the transport sector is, after the 'public sector', the sector with the highest strike rates globally. One of the reasons for why movements against transport infrastructure projects become more popular is due to the fact that people experience their own working and living conditions - like flexibilisation, longer working hours, intensification and monotony of work - as a 'price' they have to pay for capitalist mobility. At first, they find it easier to demonstrate on the streets than to fight in the workplace. Consequently there is a material chance that these 'movements' and 'workers' struggle' come together. In the US we can see in which direction things might be heading: the mobilisation of the troqueros, the strikes in the ports, the actions of warehouse workers - and the attention of Occupy Wall Street towards these struggles are precursors of something new.
These movements, mobilisations and struggles are looking for a leverage which would enable them to really change things. Some paths are detours (to mix up trade unions with working class), some are dead-ends (demands towards the state), but they are all steps to overcome the paternalism of 'organizing' and of 'taking care of the poor workers' from above.
In the 1950s it was a popular opinion that there is no working class anymore - by the end of the 1960s no one would have said this. Three decades later this opinion again became mainstream. This is less a sociological problem, rather than the question whether there is a force which is able to overthrow the whole thing. If there isn't then we are more likely to depend on the state to improve our lives.
If you understand the current developments as an 'erosion of the middle-class' you end up with a form of social Darwinism like Sarrazin. To understand the developments just as 'an expansion of the low wage sector' leads to demands of state regulation like minimum wages or guaranteed income, general health insurance etc. In these cases you look for the point of conflict not 'from below' but within the political arena or by displaying pity with the 'poor temp workers at Amazon'.
We want to turn this perspective around and see the new proletariat as the historical subject. At the beginning of the 1960s Alquati pointed out that the skilled workers perceived the assembly line workers not as 'proper workers': they were not skilled, they had no class consciousness, they were not staying in the factory from apprenticeship till retirement... - but the workers' rebellions in the end of the 1960s largely originated from the assembly departments. Today we witness similar developments.
Automation creates even more 'unskilled labour everyone could do'. The division between 'core employees' and 'marginal, outsourced workers' erodes due to the process of the conditions of formerly permanent workers becoming more precarious.
Crisis of over accumulation. People are surrounded with ever more capital, with ever bigger freight ships, ever bigger trucks, more technologies of control - nevertheless efficiency is declining. Here again, a review of the situation more than half a century ago. During the inquiry at Olivetti in the early 1960s, the freshly recruited factory workers said "you could think that at Olivetti people study what dis-organisation means…". In relation to this Alquati developed the understanding that as long as workers only relate individually to what they experience as capitalist dis-organisation this would lead them into the maze of capitalist improvement suggestion schemes, wage increases tied to growth of productivity and in the end to the idea of 'self-management'. In contrast, workers can realise their power for a revolutionary rupture once they understand the systemic nature capitalist dis-organisation and of how the actual 'functioning' depends on their constant improvisations in the production process.
Proletarianisation. A migrant work-force, which on one side has got a lot of skills (several languages and cultures, able to operate most modern communication technologies) and which is forced to 'fill in the gaps and compensate for the shortcomings within the capitalist plan' - but who is on the other side increasingly exploited 'on demand' as an allegedly 'unskilled' work-force.
Concentration. The main weapon of the capitalist counterrevolution of the recent decades was the de-composition and segmentation of the big workers' concentrations into sub-sub production chains. Through this they were able to put more and more pressure on the working class. This did not happen without resistance, but no struggle developed a wider mass front-line, or even a 'public discourse'. In Germany we saw a turning-point in this development roughly six years ago: in most cases striking workers meet with sympathy, they are largely seen as people who 'struggle in the interest of us all'. This atmosphere combined with the process of re-concentration in the sphere of exploitation could result in a qualitative leap - once people on strike are perceived as people with power to change things fundamentally. And this time working class struggle would actually be global.
[*] Umschlagspunkt: a) point of sudden change, tipping point, turning point b) point of handling cargo goods, e.g. loading cargo from ship to rail
 Congestion in US ports leading to queues of cargo ships creating backlogs which in turn affected cargo operations in Chinese ports