Why the Capitalist Class Got Caught Off Guard by The Current Wave of Labor Strikes

by Keaton Weiss

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

You may not have been familiar with that quote until now, but it’s more likely that you’ve seen this viral image of a striking Nebraska Kellogg’s worker holding down the picket line in the pouring rain:

Though arguably the most determined, he’s hardly the only American worker emboldened and enraged enough to finally assert the value of his labor against an increasingly petulant capitalist class whose refrain these past six months has been “No one wants to work.”

Of course, recent and ongoing strikes like those at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, and John Deere (just to name a few), aren’t organized simply because employees no longer “want to work,” but because they no longer care to work in lousy conditions for lousy wages.

Their newfound defiance has taken employers by surprise, as many business owners expected that a “return to normalcy” was upon us as vaccines found their way into the arms of millions of Americans, and businesses began to reopen after a year of lockdowns and quarantines.

During such time, as was pointed out quite often in conservative circles, many workers were indeed making more on unemployment than they had been at their jobs. The additional UE benefits allowed millions of working class people to put food on their tables, pay their bills, and maybe even have a few bucks leftover, without having to toil at exhausting dead-end jobs for most of their waking hours.

Once padded unemployment checks and eviction moratoriums could no longer be taken for granted, owners and managers across the country assumed that their employees would have no choice but to return to work, and that over these next few months, things would start to look just as they did in February of 2020.

But what the capitalist class didn’t realize is that while they were itching to get back in business during the still and silent period of the coronavirus shutdowns, many of their employees were finally getting a taste of what life is like without the physical strain and psychological stress of working 60 hours a week for $11.50 an hour and still having barely enough in the bank to make rent at the beginning of the month.

Having been afforded some time away from the daily grind, the working class was finally given the opportunity reflect on whether such a seemingly endless and inescapable struggle ought to be their destiny.

This period of introspection, combined with headlines reporting “labor shortages” and “supply chain issues,” has led workers to realize that they do in fact deserve better, and that circumstances have aligned such that better work in better conditions for better wages are all demands that they are better positioned to leverage than ever before in their lifetimes. And they’re seizing the opportunity.

The virtues of capitalism once seen as virtually “divine” are now being exposed for the lies they’ve always been, as this supposedly unimpeachable economic system is unable to dig itself out of the hole its found itself in.

After all, the obvious market-based solution to a labor shortage can be summed up using simple supply and demand logic: the higher the demand for a product or service, the higher its price. But rather than satisfy such a demand by increasing wages, the ownership class is choosing instead to cry foul at the very system they’ve exploited their entire lives, and falsely complain that “no one wants to work anymore.”

And so while their bosses throw their tantrums, laborers are learning firsthand that despite the dominance of capitalist hegemony, as Le Guin said, “any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” and they’re mobilizing to make these changes happen.

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Weak Jobs Numbers and a Crying Capitalist Class: Is This a De Facto General Strike?

by Keaton Weiss

In the days and weeks after the coronavirus lockdowns began, many on the Left called for a general strike. What better time than now, we thought, to demand a more robust social safety net, and to withhold our labor until we get it?

Hopeless romantics that we are, visions of picketing UAW workers and steel miners filled our heads as we imagined what could be. Wouldn’t it be great if, in the face of a once-in-a-century crisis, America’s workers could rise up en masse against their oppressors, and starve the system until it starts delivering for us?

To no one’s surprise but ours, such a thing never happened. Those put out of work by the pandemic went on unemployment, the professional managerial class worked off their laptops in their pajamas, and much of the true proletariat – “essential workers,” as they’ve come to be known – simply continued on, business as usual, with cloth masks tied around their faces. There was no general strike, no uprising, no fundamental challenge to the status quo that rendered so many so hopeless in the first place.

Now, however, over a year later, we’ve just seen the publishing of a weak April jobs report in which the economy added a mere 266,000 jobs despite a nationwide surge in vaccinations and a decline in covid cases. The unemployment rate ticked up to 6.1%. We’re also seeing a business owners large and small begin to complain that “no one wants to work anymore,” as they’re having difficulty rehiring employees for their reopenings. This phenomenon particularly applies to the restaurant industry, where the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour, but April’s employment numbers suggest that this trend is more widespread than originally thought.

True, we never got the formal declaration of a coordinated mass action, nor have we seen a wave of labor activism sweep the country as we hoped it would. But we are seeing some of the basic dynamics of a strike begin to take shape: namely, workers choosing not to participate in the job market, and bosses bitching that young people are too spoiled, entitled, and lazy to agree to work for poverty wages. Job growth is stalling, unemployment is rising, and the government is feeling increased pressure to intervene.

What all of this suggests is that perhaps we are seeing a de facto 21st century general strike led by millennials and Gen Zers. No marching, no picket lines, no inflatable rodents. Just a bunch of people who’ve decided they’d rather stay on unemployment than have their labor exploited by an increasingly piggish and petulant capitalist class. It’s not what committed Leftists with dreams of recreating the 1970 Postal Workers’ strike would have envisioned, but it’s something. In the age of the internet, social media, and food delivery apps, this just might be what a modern general strike looks like: individual people just staying home and saying “Fuck it, I’m really not into working for $9 an hour anymore.”

The aesthetics are different, the organizing isn’t there, and the political demands aren’t as pointed as we on the Left would like them to be. But perhaps, for the time being, the rallying cry of the labor movement isn’t solidarity forever, but rather, pssht, whatever. At a time when the Left can’t even organize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, this might be the best we can hope for in the short term.

We’re not seeing a true “movement” arise as we had wished, but we are seeing workers of all stripes simply choosing not to work for starvation wages, and an ownership class in meltdown mode over it. Most encouragingly, management’s typical playbook of shaming, guilting, and bullying the working class into submission doesn’t seem to be working. The topsy-turvy reality that many workers are making more money on unemployment than they would at their jobs is effectively demonstrating not the evils of government assistance, but the absurdity of a $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

In response to the April jobs report, the Biden administration stated that more stimulus is necessary. We’re seeing what might be the first effects of an organized strike start to take shape, just without the organizing. Maybe the workers of the world aren’t uniting as we’d like them to, but they are staying home and withholding their labor from the capitalists who have been exploiting them far too much for far too long.

This is a start. Is it enough? No. Is it too little too late? Probably. But a return to the pre-covid economy was never a viable option. And so for now, we should take some solace in a stubborned workforce and a crying capitalist class; it’s progress of a kind.

Photo: twentytwowords.com