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U.S. Labor: What’s New, What’s Not?


21st Century Terrain for Class Conflict

By the turn of the 21st century these trends–lean production norms, increased capital intensity at work, the “logistics revolution” and industrial consolidation–had converged to alter the terrain of class conflict as well as the structure of industry and of the working class itself. The shadow of “deindustrialization” still hung over large parts of the country and continued to imbue much of the industrial working class with a sense of lost power.

While there would be no “re-industrialization,” no new towering steel mills or inner-city auto assembly plants employing thousands, the production of goods and service has been restructured, concentrated, and linked in ways that could be to the advantage of working class organization and action. For one thing, both goods- and service-producing industries today more nearly approximate the more or less clear lines of production that made industrial unionism possible in the 1930s. For another, increased capital intensity could allow for greater gains by workers. Finally, the just-in-time supply systems that tie together the production of most good and services today makes the entire system more vulnerable to worker action.


The huge concentration of labor in the logistics clusters within or near large metropolitan areas provides an organizing target on a scale that could reverse the decline of unions. While some workers have lost power over the years, many more have gained new sources of potential power. These, of course, are objective conditions, not guarantees of success. There are, however, signs that the passivity and resignation that lingered so long is passing, particularly among the young.

From teamsters to teachers there are rank and file rebellions in many unions that reject the norms of bureaucratic business unionism. Workers once thought of as having little social power have injected action and even successful organizing into hotels, building services, hospitals, and to some extent fast food chains. Read more from Kim Moody


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