ReviewsGeorge Binette

US LABOR - Hope for rebirth?

ReviewsGeorge Binette
US LABOR - Hope for rebirth?
On New Terrain cover.jpg

George Binette reviews On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War by Kim Moody (Haymarket, £15.99)  

LONDON, veteran US activist and author, Kim Moody, offers a timely antidote to despair about the potential of America’s working class to play a central role both in resisting the Trump agenda and the neo-liberal brand of capitalism that paved ‘The Donald’s’ path to the White House.

In a useful postscript entitled Who Put Trump in the White House? he effectively rebuts the notion that white working class voters in rust belt regions of Ohio and western Pennsylvania were decisive.

While there was undoubtedly a rise in the Republican vote in white ‘union households’, the real story was the fall in the Democratic Party vote and sharp rise in abstention among working class voters from virtually all ethnic groups.

While deeply concerned by Trump’s ascent, it is not his primary concern in a work that admirably combines academic rigour with accessible prose to assert a Marxist understanding of social class and contemporary political economy. Moody, a founder of the Labor Notes publication and its associated network of trade union activists, has mustered an impressive body of statistical evidence to argue that:

» The decline in the significance of an industrial working class, at least in the US context, has been exaggerated by many left-leaning and liberal commentators;

» precarious employment is hardly new and its growth, while undeniable, has been overstated, making the frequent focus on the ‘gig economy’ unhelpful;

» and new concentrations of capital invested in the logistics of production and distribution around clusters close to major conurbations potentially strengthen workers’ capacity to mount highly effective challenges at the workplace.

He is only too aware of the drastically weakened state of the organised working class in the US, with union density in the private sector workforce down 6.6% in 2015 and effective assaults on public sector union organisation, most notoriously in Wisconsin. He also recognises that resistance, as measured by strikes, has been muted at best and until recently declining against a backdrop of a long-term stagnation or actual fall in working class living standards, only partly offset by hugely extended consumer credit pre-2008.

Moody does, however, detect signs of an upswing in 2015 and 2016, pointing to 45 days of continuous strike action by nearly 40,000 members of two unions at telecoms giant Verizon as well as sustained strikes by some 10,000 members of National Nurses United in four different parts of the country. Understandably, he sees the remarkably vibrant nine-day strike in 2012 by Chicago teachers - and the campaign that led up to it - against the city’s Democratic administration as a critical turning point.

On the other hand, the defeat of a union recognition campaign at a Nissan car plant in Mississippi last August came too late for Moody to consider here. Was the United Auto Workers’ failure an illustration of the “bureaucratic business unionism” Moody rightly decries or was it a casualty of the “fragmented consciousness [and] ethnoracial divisions” among US workers he readily acknowledges?

I had hoped for evidence of an upsurge around the hugely concentrated logistics hubs he highlights as a central feature of the ‘new terrain’. With a couple of notable exceptions, examples seemed in short supply though, as Moody writes, if “the unions and the labor movement as a whole aren’t changing, all the opportunities offered by consolidating, just-in-time capitalism can be lost.”

A previous working class upsurge in the midst of the Depression-wracked 1930s owed much to the commitment and organisational nous of activists in relatively small ‘parties’ of the left, a factor that is now largely absent, and not only in the US. So what of the relationship between the industrial and political?

In one of several appendices Moody observes overwhelming, if often critical, support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign among the 2,000+ union activists who attended the spring 2016 Labor Notes conference. At the same time, however, he is extremely sceptical of attempts by Sanders and others to push “the Democrats in a social democratic direction [that] runs counter to the longstanding ideological, policy, funding and strategic thrust of that party.”

Ultimately, Moody favours the creation of a new party of the organised working class and oppressed, and again believes that the restructured shape of US capitalism creates much improved prospects for the emergence of such a party. He sounds a cautionary note to new continental European parties of the left for failing to engage in sustained political work in the unions, which should not be dismissed “as simply part of the dying social democracy”. I’d dare suggest that this is useful advice, too, for many in Labour inspired by the Corbyn leadership.


Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP