Workers, the state, and struggle

Workers, the state, and struggle

Article about the state and ways that struggles by workers sometimes reinforce capitalism.

In 1935 the United States Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This Act is often credited by progressives with creating incredible new opportunities for the U.S. working class. The NLRA created a new regime of industrial relations in the U.S., but that change was less a matter of creating something new and was more a matter of further spreading practices that already existed. What the NLRA did is throw greater weight of the U.S. government behind a range of forms of workers' organizing and left room open for unions to define some of the specifics. In an article in the Industrial Worker newspaper, part of a debate about what some of us sometimes call "direct unionism", I dealt with aspects of this history.

The heart of the NLRA was about bringing to bear state power on employers, in a very limited way, with one main goal: greater stability for capitalism. One argument that supporters of the NLRA made was that state backing of workers organizing would result in redistribution of wealth into the pockets of more workers. This redistribution in turn would make for more consumers able to buy goods, thus encouraging economic activity. Another argument that supporters of the NLRA made was that the act would prevent more disruptive conflicts. In other words, the NLRA would channel and shape workers struggles in a direction that posed less of a problem than other forms of struggle.

Capitalists tend to have a good sense of their interests as employers. These terms aren't ideal but employer-consciousness arises organically from the social relationship of employment under capitalism. Many readers will be familiar with this but in case anyone isn't, generally speaking capitalists employ people to create goods or services which the capitalist own. The capitalists sell these goods or services for prices that are higher than the capitalists' costs. That is, they sell the good/service for more than the cost of the materials and the wages of the people who worked on those materials in order to produce the good/service sold. When workers work on something, we increase its value. We're not paid the full value of the increase we bring about, the capitalist keeps some or most of it. That difference - between the increase in value we bring about and the share we get in wages - is what Marx called surplus value. This is the heart of the profits capitalists make from workers. This is where capitalists get their wealth; this is what employers live on.

Capitalist employers have a sense that their employees produce surplus value and they act accordingly. If they don't, they face threats from the rest of the economy - a capitalist who pays higher wages than other capitalists who sell similar goods/services will, all things being equal, fall behind. If they don't become more competitive, they will go out of business. That's part of what I meant when I said that employer consciousness arises organically. If capitalist employers don't get enough surplus value from employees, they face penalties. These penalties help make employers relatively aware of their position as employers.

Awareness of the dynamics of being an employer is not the same thing as being a class conscious capitalist, however. Every capitalist is a capitalist in relation to his or her employees, but not every capitalist acts in ways that are favorable to the capitalist class as a whole or the long term life of the capitalist system. As an analogy, anyone who works for a living is in some way aware of the power relationships involved in being an employee but not all employees are class conscious workers. Workers sometimes act in ways that are bad for other workers or the working class as a whole. Similar things can happen with capitalists. Being a worker doesn't automatically provide working class consciousness. Likewise, being a capitalist doesn't automatically make someone a class conscious capitalist.

One of the roles of the state is to help identify needs for the current capitalist system and needs of the long term health of the capitalist system. I began with the National Labor Relations Board; the NLRA was part of an important set of institutional changes in U.S. capitalism. It involved challenges to many currently existing capitalists, and yet the changes were made in order to preserve the long term health of capitalism in the United States. The policymakers and economic planners who pushed for the NLRA opposed many capitalists but they did so in service to capitalism. The NLRA was an attempt to answer some problems within actually existing capitalism and to do so on capitalism's own terms.

This is part of the role of the state, not only to attempt to identify systemic needs but also to try to get capitalists to act in line with those perceived systemic needs. This can serve to create capitalist class consciousness or at least to discipline capitalists to act in ways that planners believe are good for capitalism. In some cases this can result in long term benefits to actually existing capitalists but in other cases it involves some businesses being put out of business and, eventually, some of them or their descendants being ejected out of the capitalist class. This is part of why capitalists hesitate in the face of state introduction of changes - no capitalist wants to lose. If they do so enough times, they or their children might have to actually work for a living… In the words of the historian of slavery Eugene Genovese, in his book Roll, Jordan, Roll:

"the great object of social reform is to prevent a fundamental change in class relations."

This means that reformers

"must fight against those reactionaries who cannot understand the need for secondary, although not necessarily trivial, change in order to prevent deeper change (…) reactionaries will insist that any change, no matter how slight, will set in motion forces of dissolution."

Sometimes capitalists oppose reform because they're reactionary ideologically; sometimes they do so because they believe that they will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the new version of capitalism that will exist after the reform.

The state is in part a mechanism for helping identify problems that are systemic – tied to the interests of the capitalist class as a whole – and a way to work out politically how to respond to the capitalists’ class interests. That is, visionary capitalists and their functionaries in foundations and think tanks can use the state to put forward proposals and communicate them to others to try to win them to this view. If that fails, with enough political support from other capitalists (and some workers, in many cases), particular parts of the capitalist class can get the state to do certain things, to discipline individual capitalists who aren’t acting in line with what is believed to be the capitalist class’s over all interests.

Individual capitalists or fractions of the capitalist class don't necessarily pursue the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. Often there is disagreement among the fractions of the capitalist class about what is the best course of action to pursue. That a given fraction is dominant does not mean it necessarily does what is best for the capitalist class, but usually the dominant fractions, and those who the state acts in service of, will believe they are doing what's best for capitalism over all. The dominant fraction can be wrong, though. For example of this is health insurance in the US. The only measure according to which 'our' healthcare/health insurance (non)system makes sense is that of the profits of insurers. The current non-system poses public health risks (which can become political and economic problems) - for many people it results in less preventive care, which is cheaper to provide than other forms of healthcare. So it causes worse health outcomes, which cause loss of economic productivity and more expensive health care. This arrangement also raises the costs of the same procedure in the US. By maintaining a very minimal floor - you can always get treatment in a hospital emergency room if you have an immediate healthcare problem - the system results in very large amount of public dollars going to healthcare, in addition the excessively high private healthcare and health insurance costs. These expenditures are inefficient from an over-all social perspective, however, even according capitalist logic, because the high expenditures purchase lower quality healthcare. This is not good for anyone except the insurers making money off of it. Some of the costs are passed onto employers (via unions, via market pressures - need to have a competitive benefits package for certain jobs, and via taxes), as well as causing conflicts with employees that could be avoided. This is a form of highly mediated inter-capitalist conflict with regard to who gets what share of the total surplus wealth extracted from workers (some companies have to pay what would otherwise be profits). Over all it's not good for US capitalism beyond insurers and a few others. That this arrangement continues demonstrates that changes in these arrangements stuff are not natural or built in to capitalism or predetermined, they're political. Those politics include the class struggle above all, but also political conflict among the capitalists.

Sometimes an individual capitalist or group of capitalists pursues things that are believed by the dominant capitalists to be detrimental to the capitalist class as a whole and and so they need to be brought in line. To quote Eugene Genovese again,

"The most advanced fraction of the slaveholders - those who most clearly perceived interest and needs of the class as a whole - steadily worked to make their class more conscious of its nature, spirit, and destiny. (…) For any such political center, the class as a whole must be brought to a higher understanding of itself - transformed from a class-in-itself, reacting to pressures on its objective position, into a class-for-itself, consciously striving to shape the world in its own image. Only possession of public power can discipline a class as a whole, and through it, the other classes of society. The juridical system may become, then, not merely an expression of class interest, nor even merely an expression of the willingness of the rulers to mediate with the ruled; it may become an instrument by which the advanced section of the ruling class imposes its viewpoint upon the class as a whole and the wider society. The law must discipline the ruling class."

Genovese is overly statist when he writes that "possession of public power" is a requirement, but he is right that state power plays this role in capitalism, in helping the capitalist class guide and discipline itself. Here's Genovese again:

"The slaveholders fell back on a kind of dual power: that which they collectively exercised as a class, even against their own individual impulses, through their effective control of state power; and that which they reserved to themselves as individuals who commanded other human beings in bondage. In general, this duality appears in all systems of class rule, for the collective judgment of the ruling class, coherently organized in the common interest, cannot be expected to coincide with the sum total of the individual interests and judgments of its members; first because the law tends to reflect the will of the most politically coherent and determined fraction, and second, because the sum total of the individual interests and judgments of the members of the ruling class generally, rather than occasionally, pulls against the collective needs of a class that must appeal to other classes for support at critical junctures."

The NLRA brought the power of the U.S. state to bear on U.S. employers as part of bringing capitalists into line with what policymakers and economic planners at the time thought were the interests of the capitalist system. In my article in the Industrial Worker I used these points as part of argument against the IWW pursuing collective bargaining. I suggested that state endorsement of collective bargaining ought to make us pause. At the same time, while collective bargaining was what economic planners preferred, there is another component to the National Labor Relations Act.

In addition to helping spread collective bargaining, the NLRA included language stating:

"Employees shall have the right of self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."

In the contemporary IWW in the U.S. some of us have advocated form of workplace organizing that go by a variety of names - solidarity unionism, minority unionism, direct unionism… These names track onto differences in practice but what all of these approaches have in common is that they fall into the legal category of "concerted activities." In the United States there is legal support for attempts to engage in collective bargaining (understood to include a union contract and a single exclusive bargaining agent in the form of a union), but there is also support for workers "self-organization (…) for the purpose of (…) mutual aid." What this means in practice is that in a non-unionized workplace one worker who complains about work conditions can be fired with impunity (part of a doctrine called at-will employment) but two workers who complain have gained a new sort of legal protection. Two or more workers who approach management to make changes at work have engaged in protected concerted activity. If an employee retaliates against them, the employees can file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, a charge called an Unfair Labor Practice. Now, American labor law at this point is weak and enforcement is poor, but the legal power brought to bear in cases of retaliation against two workers self-organizing to demand change at work is the same as that brought to bear in collective bargaining with recognized unions. Direct unionism can be just as legally protected as contractualism.

I can't speak to the actual historical origins of the legal language protecting some forms of workers' self-organization, but here are some reasons why I think this protection makes sense. One is about shaping the forms that workers' struggle take - concerted activity is not protected when it breaks the law: violence isn't protected, for example, nor is the seizure of employers' property. Protecting some activity over others is partly a way to encourage or channel workers' struggles into some forms instead of other forms. In addition, again to quote Genovese,

"The law (…) may compel conformity by granting each individual his right of private judgment, but it must deny him the right to take action based on that judgment when in conflict with the general will. (…) It appears mere egotism and antisocial behavior to attempt to go outside the law unless one is prepared to attack the entire legal system and therefore the consensual framework of the body politic."

That is to say, by allowing some measure of redress, labor law helps make workers' grievances a matter which can potentially be addressed within the capitalist system and under capitalist governments.

More fundamentally, though, I think the protection of concerted activity is about one of the same things that makes the state support collective bargaining: sometimes workers' struggles can help advanced class conscious capitalists and the state preserve capitalism. The state, by backing workers' struggles in some cases, bets on the potential power of those struggles to help capitalism. Workers' struggles can do so by helping discipline capitalists into acting in ways that support capitalism, or by helping identify practices that are particularly prone to creating social friction, and perhaps by helping identify potential solutions to those practices.

None of this is to say that struggle always reinforces capitalism. Nor is this to say that we should reject the call for 'direct unionism' because it sometimes fits into activity that the U.S. state recognizes as acceptable ('protected concerted activity'). Rather, the point is that those of us who are engaged in conversations about the form of workers' struggles, including so-called direct unionism and other efforts to avoid the traps of collective bargaining and other institutionalized forms of workers' struggles, we should have further discussion about a few things. One thing I think we should discuss further is the role of explicit, openly revolutionary political perspectives as part of our activity in struggle. (I discussed this to the best of my abilities in a discussion paper called Mottos and Watchwords. I think some of the reflections by Joseph Kay and other comrades in SolFed about what they call political-economic organizations are thought provoking on these themes as well.) Another is the connection between struggle over immediate conditions and the struggle to end capitalism. These are clearly connected, and yet it's not the case that all victory in any particular struggle over the terms of life and work under capitalism is also a victory that brings us closer to the end of capitalism. The third point is that I think we should talk more about the ways in which workers' struggles can sometimes be temporarily made to serve as a tool which some capitalists use to get an advantage over others and can sometimes be a source of innovations within capitalist institutions, innovations that strengthen the system and boost profits. Struggles and efforts can play this role even when strongly opposed by actually existing capitalists because capitalists, like workers, don't always believe in or act in accord with the interests of their class as a whole. That capitalists fight or fought hard in opposing a reform can sometimes make it seem like a given struggle or victory is more radical than it is. Fourth and finally, I think we should discuss what it means if and when we make use of state resources and enforcement provisions. In the United States in IWW campaigns we sometimes make tactical use of filing Unfair Labor Practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. There is much to be said about problems that can result from this. Among the potential problems one might be that we inadvertently encourage the view that the current system can accommodate workers' grievances. Use of the NLRB to file ULP charges doesn't necessarily reinforce capitalism or bad ideas among workers, but it might if we do it wrong. We should discuss better and worse ways to make use of this aspect of state power against employers.


Dec 13 2011 22:09

Good blog - and interesting in terms of "concerted activities" applying as much to self organisation as to union organising. I wasn't aware of that.

Dec 13 2011 22:11

PS great to see you blogging here!

Dec 14 2011 03:10

Thanks Steven, that's kind of you on both counts.
The concerted activity thing is I think something pretty anomolous about US labor law. I'm slowly working on getting to know that history better. I think the suggestions I make here are relatively convincing (but then, duh, what else would I think? that I'm wrong?) as to why this made sense for the functions and needs of capitalism but I'd like to get more of a sense of where the particular idea came from and the language etc. I don't know if that kind of thing really matters much in the big picture but I like to know where things came from.

Alexander Roxwell
Dec 14 2011 04:08

A very good reference book to understand the trade off of the Labor Relations Act of 1935 is Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital. Yes, the Labor Relations Act ended the notion that Unions were illegal institutions attempting to undermine and restrain the "free trade" protected in the Constitution. The trade off is often seen in Union Contracts under a "Management Rights" clause that gives unrestained power to the employer to define the division of labor and how the work is allocated. This was a very large concession to the employers - and was one of the ultimate causes of Unions limiting themselves to wage and benefit levels.

Dec 14 2011 08:09

hi Alexander, thanks for the recommendation. I've had that Braverman book for ages and keep meaning to read it, I'll have to find where it is and dust it off.

Respectfully, unions in the US weren't illegal prior to the NLRA. If you look at the piece of mine that I linked to - here it is: - I show there that the NLRA basically just repeated the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, with the difference that the NLRA increased enforcement greatly. And the 1933 Recovery Act actually drew on at least 10 years of collective bargaining experience that was run (at the state level) through the courts. So it wasn't that unions were illegal. They were definitely viewed as *illegitimate* by most employers, for sure, I think that's part of the aim behind the NLRA, to legitimate unions to employers. I think it was partly a case of economic planners thinking that most capitalists didn't know what was good for them (well, good for the capitalist system anyway).

I will say, I absolutely agree with your point about the trade off about management rights clauses etc. I'm workign on a short piece that gets into a bit of the history of these sorts of clauses in the US. I can't prove this but my hunch is that the NLRA sought to see collective bargaining happen within a range of options and left it to (or at least, drew upon the practices of) the existing mainstream labor movement in order to define the particulars of what collective bargaining would look like. Which is to say, I think it may be that the spread of this type of union contract in the US had as much to do with initiative on the part of reformist unions as it did with the state trying to impose that form of unionism.

Dec 14 2011 20:34

Very good article, can i suggest you put quotes in their own paragraph - makes for easier reading.

What do think about the capitalist class' reaction to the financial crisis? Does the resorting to extreme austerity even in the face of working class fight back (in europe) indicate the end of the capitalist class' ability (financially) to offer reform to insure class peace. Or is it pure arrogance and them calling our bluff based on the belief workers are too disorganised resist the attacks.

Dec 14 2011 22:17

hi Convert,
Thanks, and that's an interesting question, I wish I knew...! I think it's really hard to tell the difference between objective possibilities and subject assessments... I think the capitalists are in one respect in the same boat that we are - they need analysis to operate, existing analyses disagree, people convinced of one or the other analysis need to do work to win people over to their view, implementing proposals involves organizing others and conflict... It's hard to know if reform is possible or not, but personally I *do* think reform is possible. This is another thing I keep meaning to write about, but briefly for now (and here too I'm not totally sure of this, sort of thinking out loud)... in the US tax rates have been cut in recent history as has welfare/social wage. These policies have resulted in increasing economic inequality and social movements in response to that inequality. As far as I know, though, wealth has continued to flow to the wealthiest - capitalists have continued to accumulate. All social wealth comes from labor (well, some comes from nature and from dispossession/primitive accumulation, but whatever...), things like tax cuts and so on are state policies that help direct a larger share of the wealth that labor produces, direct that larger share upward. Which is to say, there have been reforms in recent memory that redistribute wealth, it's just an upward redistribution of wealth. That's one reason that I think redistributive reforms are possible. I also think that other reforms are certainly possible - healthcare/health insurance reform (which as I said above is in my opinion inefficient from a capitalist perspective for anyone outside the health insurance industry), immigration policy reform, easing of foreclosure, and student loan debt forgiveness all strike me as things that could actually be accomplished. I'm speaking to the US here, because that;s where I live. I should also say - I don't really meant this as optimistic, I think the possibility of reform makes things harder for communists. If I'm right and reform is possible and if we operate under the assumption that it's impossible then I think we probably be unprepared if serious reform pushes break out.

I want to also say, I think it's worth noting insuring class peace is just a matter of amounts, it's at least as much a qualitative issue of what people think and how they experience their lives and what they expect as much as it is a quantitative issue of how much people actually have. These things are connected (the rate of exploitation and the experiential meaning of exploitation, so to speak, are linked) but they're not identical. This is all stuff I need to think more about and stuff I plan to eventually write some more about, to try to get clearer ideas on this.

What do you think?

Juan Conatz
Dec 14 2011 22:40

I just put the quotes in blockquotes to make it a little easier to read, btw.

I appreciated this piece, because I think there needs to be more discussion on the issue of reform. The communization folks and insurrectionary anarchists/communists involved in some of the student movement stuff from the last couple of years, and now Occupy say that reform is impossible in a number of pieces. Most of the time it's just stated matter of factly. Sometimes it's said vaguely in a way that sways me but I'm still not convinced either way on the issue.

Dec 15 2011 04:30

Thanks Juan.

You're making me think there may be more to reform than I had though. I'd been thinking "reform is possible" would be a dull thing to write about but maybe not. Can you think of an example of a piece off the top of your head that makes the "reform is impossible" claim? That'd help me get rolling.

Dec 15 2011 06:46


Great post! I think you've kind of buried the lede with your build up, whereas the 'self-organization for concerted actions of mutual aid and protection' bit is somewhat ground-breaking, to me at least, as I've never seen it discussed before. If you develop this further into a longer piece, my suggestion would be to make it a little clearer this is where you are heading right off the top.

[/unsolicited advice]

I would be very interested in finding out more about what this phrase has meant in the history of the NLRA, particularly in legal procedings as, while we may think of the legal route as a sort of last option, the courts' prescedents will go along way in figuring out how much we can get away with using this approach, and obviously as you state could inform tactics.

I'm also interested in the reform conversation just beginning but I really don't have time to weigh in atm.

Dec 15 2011 08:25

hey Jesuit, thanks for the kind words. Thanks for the writing advice as well. I appreciate feedback at hte level of this as a piece of writign because I want to get better at the craft/presentation side of writing. If you wouldn't mind it'd help me out if you'd make wording suggestions -- as in, would you mind taking a crack at rewriting the opening to make it clearer as you suggest? I've got probly two more pieces I want to write that are sort of in the same vein (historical stuff on US labor policy etc), so this'd help me write the next ones better.

On the specifics of where the language came from, I dunno if you read the piece of mine that I mentioned and linked to, in there I talk about how similar language showed up in the 1933 national industrial recovery act. I looked some more tonight though in response to your question and there's the 1932 Norris-Laguardia Act, which was basically a bill to dramatically restrict courts use of labor injunctions. From too much time spent on google, my understanding now (which may not be correct!) is that the first US court to issue an injunction in a labor dispute happened in 1888, and that by 1928 both mainstream US political parties were calling for some kind of reform to the use of injunctions. Apparently Felix Frankfurter had a hand in shaping the 1932 act - in 1939 he was appointed to the US Supreme Court. This all new to me but it's clear that this is a matter of reshuffling state deployment of force (and legitimacy/ideological power) in regard to labor struggles. Some thing I read (haven't kept notes, probly gonna regret that) described injunctions as having been the centerpiece of US state action in labor relations, at least at the federal level, so the 1932 act created a vacuum of sorts. My hunch is that this vacuum was filled in by, on the one hand, the labor movement and on the other hand by legal/state practices in various US states (in that Industrial Worker article I talk about one instance of collective bargaining via courts in the late 1910s or early 1920s).

Not too sure what to make of this (and quite tired so it's hard to think clearly, it;s very late and I have to be up early... this is your fault...!), I'm going to dig around on this further as I can. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Oh yeah. I'm also pasting below part of the 1932 act, the Norris Laguardia anti-injunction act, which includes the language of "concerted activities" and "mutual aid."

"Whereas under prevailing economic conditions, developed with the aid of governmental authority for owners of property to organize in the corporate and other forms of ownership association, the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract and to protect his freedom of labor, and thereby to obtain acceptable terms and conditions of employment, wherefore, though he should be free to decline to associate with his fellows, it is necessary that he have full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of his own choosing, to negotiate the terms and conditions of his employment, and that he shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents, in the designation of such representatives or in self-organization or in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection; therefore, the following definitions of and limitations upon the jurisdiction and authority of the courts of the United States are enacted."

Dec 16 2011 20:36

Nate - In relation to reform possibility I only have vague musings tbh. I guess the lack of reforms we are seeing is probably a bit of both inability and unwillingness depending available profit for redistribution and historical factors - level of class struggle & the degree of totalatarianism the ruling class can get away with. But i tend to believe its more inability and this tendency will become more acute.

Because if you accept Marx' theory on the tendency for the rate of profit to fall then in the long run there simply wont be the available profit to placate everyone.

Dec 17 2011 00:37

Sorry, only just now have had a chance to check the thread. Nate, I'd be happy to help out. I might have some time over the wknd to take a look at it.

Dec 17 2011 05:21

hi Convert,
I've not paid much attention to the literature on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall so I'm out on a limb here... part of why I've not paid more attention to it, though, is that the folk I've run into who make a big deal out of that have tended to have what I'd call a catastrophist orientation - eventually capitalism will hit an upward limit and there simply won't be resources available anymore. That seems to me to rest on a confusion between the *rate* of profit and the *mass* of profit. There's no reason why a relative decline in rate of profit must equal a decline in absolute/real quantity of wealth produced. I also think that austerity makes reform easier in one sense -- in a period of capitalist offensive it's a positive change for workers' standard of living if there's a stop on downward restructuring. I dunno if you've read it but Aufheben has a fantastic three-part series of article on the idea that capitalism is in decline, if you've not seen it I highly recommend it. I forget the exact title but it has the word "decadence" in it and is on this site somewhere.

hey Jesuit, Awesome. Looking forward to it.