Photo by Ken Whytock on Unsplash
Labour is making a comeback.
From the success of the Staten Island Amazon warehouse union to the several hundred union petitions in Starbucks to the incredible popularity of Workers’ Party candidate Lula da Silva in the Brazilian race for the country’s presidency—labour is making a comeback early this decade.
No doubt COVID-19 has played a role in labour’s return; the pandemic has exposed just how little some employers care for their workers’ well being on top of the global supply chain issues which have hurt the middle and lower classes most of all. Meanwhile some of the biggest shareholders in the world have been seeing record profits.
UNIONS, UNIONS EVERYWHERE: COLLECTIVE BARGAINING IN CANADA AND THE U.S.
The National Labour Relations Board in the United States shows that union election wins in mid-2022 are showing a 20-year high in the country.
Last year The Brock Press got an exclusive interview with Starbucks Workers United, a grassroots organizing committee that formed around the first U.S.-based Starbucks union in Buffalo, New York, on their trials and tribulations — including union-busting tactics on the part of corporate — with getting a contract. This Starbucks’ victory caused a rupture in the corporation and since then the number of Starbucks’ in the country to vote in favour of a union surpassed 200 in July of this year.
Despite Amazon’s $4.3 million on union-busting consultants and other efforts, the Amazon Labour Union is looking strong as ever with President Christian Smalls recently rallying in Times Square. The first successful Amazon union ever is still the greatest achievement for labour in decades in the U.S.
Additionally, the now averted railway strike in the U.S. nearly materialized as a result of the largest freight railroad carriers creating poor working conditions to workers if not laying them off. U.S. railway industries have laid off 30 per cent of their workforce in the past six years at the same time U.S. railroads have engaged in $196 billion in stock buybacks since 2010.
Up the border, here in Ontario things are looking promising as well as seen in The Globe and Mail:
“In Ontario, according to data from the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, 650 collective agreements have been ratified by union members so far in 2022. The average annual wage increase in those settlements (which encompass bargaining units with 150 or more members) already hovers at 2.8 per cent. In 2021, that same figure was 1.2 per cent, and in 2020, it was 1.4 per cent. More than 2,000 settlements were ratified in both those years.”
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist, served as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2010. He was later incarcerated on shaky evidence of internal government corruption. A massive campaign to prove his being a political prisoner got underway after an article from The Intercept revealed a telegram from the judge of his case to the lead prosecutor that demonstrated a conspiracy to stop Lula from running in the 2018 Brazil primary election.
This news rippled across the world and saw supporters of Lula’s release in the UN General Assembly as well as from global progressive intelligentsia giants like Noam Chomsky. He was freed in 2019, however he was not allowed to run against President Jair Bolsonaro, a fascist by every metric who has been on record blaming the Amazon rainforest fires on Indigenous peoples instead of climate change. Lula’s inability to run was due to a Clean Slate law which was eventually quashed allowing the former president to run in the primary election this coming October.
Lula is perhaps the closest thing the modern era has to a Nelson Mendala figure. He pulled millions of Brazilians out of poverty and dropped the country’s child malnutrition percentage by nearly half. He put 40 billion euros into public housing initiatives, urbanized favelas, funded a ton of water purification initiatives and dropped the hardest line of any state official during the 2008 financial crisis, that it was the result of “the irrational behavior of white people with blue eyes, who before seemed to know everything, and now have shown they don’t know anything.”
Lula is currently ahead in the polls against Bolsonaro as the race approaches its end.
A MARXIAN CRASH COURSE
With all the buzz on labour’s increasing presence in politics, it’s a good time to return to the classic formulations from Karl Marx that provide a robust theoretical underpinning to the feelings of exploitation that underclasses have faced throughout capitalism’s roughly 300-year-old existence.
When Marx says that workers are exploited under capitalism he doesn’t mean that going to work sucks and you don’t believe your boss should make any more than you do. He meant it is constitutive of capitalist enterprises to exploit labour-power in order to make as much profit as possible.
It’s not that difficult to understand:
If a product’s value, let’s say a book, created by labour is equal to 100, the product needs to sell above the price it cost to make it with past products of labour known as the means of production (buildings, machines, tools, etc.) otherwise a capitalist isn’t breaking even. Let’s say that a solidified labour value of 50 goes into the total labour value of 100, i.e. the book, due to wear and tear of machinery as well as the transformation of one commodity into another which would be the paper, ink and processed leather combining into a book. So:
Total Labour (the book) = 100
50 of that 100 comes from the past labour A.K.A fixed costs leaving 50 in value leftover.
However, to get all those past values of labour to form a new one you need a special commodity that is the only one that can do that kind of transformative work, namely labour power which can only come from alive labour. The alive labour needs to get some of the 100 back from the sale of the book in order to fulfill her needs so she can return for another day of work and reproduce her transformative labour-power. So let’s say 25 of the 100 of labour value that is materialized in cash by selling the book goes to her wages, i.e. the price of labour power. So now:
Total Labour (100) = Past Labour (50) + Alive Labour (50) A.K.A. variable costs.
The worker gets 25 in wages and this leaves a surplus-value of 25. This leftover value of 25 is the profit which is still nonetheless the creation of the workers who put their labour power into the production process. In capitalism the surplus-value that alive labour creates is appropriated by the capitalist and ends up doing a variety of things such as expanding the operation or going into the capitalist’s end of year bonus.
Marx’s point is simply that the employer, boss, CEO, board of directors, etc. take the surplus value that was created by alive labour and decide on what to do with it in an undemocratic fashion.
As long as this contradiction exists, socialism, unions and the likes will haunt our economic system as the last couple years have proven.