“Think about workers’ struggles. As long as they happened in the industrial factory, the acceleration in workers communication and action placed the owner in a defensive position and was able to defeat structures of control. Slogans circulated rapidly among workers in their factories and neighborhoods, allowing these struggles to become generalized….Microelectronic technologies have completely reversed this situation: capital conquers the capacity for rapid deterritorialization, transferring production all over the globe, while the timing of workers’ organizations remains localized and slows as compared to the one of capitalist globalization.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about organizing, the power it does/doesn’t manifest, and the glue that holds it together: solidarity.
What happens to solidarity and worker organizing when the workshop, the factory floor, the sweatshop, dissolves (in the U.S) over the course of decades transforming the nature of work itself? We’ve moved to a new economy dominated by distributed services with sometimes complicated boss/owner/client relationships and creative/semio producers for whom place and permanence is neither desired nor demanded. Think domestic workers in New York City and temporary migrant workers at a seafood plant in Louisana supplying shrimp for sale at Walmart workers on one side and virtual self-managed personal assistance based India and contract video game designers and programmers just out of college in Silicon Valley on the other.
The real question here is: What is the basis for worker solidarity?
My cynical-self still holds the physical drudgery of work in my muscles and ligaments; days of carrying sheet after sheet of sheetrock up co-op stairs in Manhattan; waking up far before dawn to get to the sweltering bakery to shape rolls and loaves of bread with sleepy fingers; dumping half-eaten dinners into the garbage before loading an industrial dish washer that breaths a foul stench of steam. Solidarity among my fellow co-workers – who were different in age, gender, sexuality, language spoken, education level, and interests and responsibilities out side of work – was built on what we did share, the workplace, and our inevitable antagonistic relationships with bosses/owners/the clock/each other. Solidarity was grounded in the shared drudgery, the shared early rising, late nights, and schemes to steal an extra ten minutes here and there for a coffee break or lunch. Solidarity was the ability to see each other in each other because of the likeness we had as workers doing similar if not the same tasks at the same time for the same boss.
As Berardi points out in the quote above, when workers are in close proximity not only is there the opportunity to build solidarity, there is also the opportunity to spread shared ideas and sentiment grounded in the place and time of work (as well as push those ideas out into the larger community). This sharing is the beginning of organizing and foreshadows powerful collective organizations that can take on the boss. Context matters.
The loss of the industrial shop floor, the dispersal of workers from physical proximity, the loss of collective labor in the creation of a product, and the loss of shared labor time greatly limits the ability of workers to organize through traditional models and methods into local worker organizations. And even if they were able to, Berardi rightfully questions the ability of slow and small local organizations to challenge and win campaigns against globalized corporations.
Does this mean the end of solidarity and the end of worker organizing/organization? I don’t think so. Be it does demand a deep rethinking of what it is that unites a globalized and dispersed (both geographically and temporally) workforce. It also demands a rethinking of what types of worker organizations (if any – traditionally speaking) are needed to defend workers and expand the power of workers to control their lives.