Is the working class still a force for change?

Mark Gillespie looks at the changing nature of the economy and whether this means the working class is disappearing

The argument that the working class is shrinking and no longer a force for social change is very common. The massive growth in the white collar and service industries in the developed nations, along with the decline of manufacturing, leads many to conclude we live in a “post-industrial” society.

Labor Party politicians use these arguments to justify reducing union influence and opening the party to “more diverse voices”.

But sections of the anti-capitalist left also accept this. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the influential authors of Empire, argue the industrial working class has been “displaced from its central position in the capitalist economy”.

This is a fundamental challenge to the traditional Marxist view. Marx argued that the more capitalism developed, the more it concentrated workers at the heart of the system and that they had the collective power to challenge it.


There is no doubt the economy in the developed nations has changed. Manufacturing in Australia once accounted for close to 30 per cent of GDP and is down to about 10 per cent today. There are similar trends in other developed nations.

But structural change within capitalism is not new. Driven by competition to maximise profits the system is constantly restructuring and seeking new markets.

Capitalist production first developed in textiles, expanding into coal and heavy industry and later into the “new industries” such as car manufacturing and light manufacturing.

The Australian workforce looked very different before the rise of manufacturing. In 1891, 30 per cent of the workforce was in primary production (agricultural, pastoral and mining) and shearers were a significant part of the union movement.

As capitalism restructures and new groups of workers emerge there is always scepticism about their potential to organise and resist. Casual labourers on the waterfront were once considered un-organisable. In the 1950s and 60s it was fashionable to argue that car workers had become “bourgeoisified”.

Middle class

Today we’re told the growth of white collar jobs and the service industry means society is more middle class. But the method used to define who is working class is deeply flawed, with workers often equated simply to those in blue-collar jobs.

But class is more than the collar of your shirt, your “lifestyle” or even how you think of yourself. What’s important is your relationship to the production process and where your objective interests lie.

The capitalist class are the small minority who derive their fabulous fortunes, either directly or indirectly, from ownership or control of companies and the means of production (factories, offices, mines etc). They hence have an objective interest in maintaining the system.

Workers in contrast have no significant investments or wealth and must sell their labour to survive. This brings them into conflict with the capitalist class, who use their ownership and control over production and the threat of unemployment to maximise profits.

The position of blue and white collar workers is identical. Both have to sell their labour to survive and both have the threat of unemployment hanging over their heads.

As white collar work has expanded and became more routinised and badly paid, white collar workers have increasingly turned to unions to resist. Between 1969 and 1981 the number of white-collar unionists in Australia rose by 89 per cent to 1.2 million to become 40 per cent of the union movement.

Productive workers

Large sections of white collar workers, like teachers, nurses and public servants, are employed by the state and don’t produce directly for the market. But their labour is critical for the overall running of capitalism and they remain exposed to competitive pressures.

Capitalism, for example, needs a well educated workforce and constantly politicians and bureaucrats are measuring the performance of the Australian education system against other advanced economies and looking for new ways squeeze teachers. They want a world class education system but at minimal cost.

Federal public servants face similar pressures. Currently they are in dispute with the Abbott government over wages and conditions. Every cent Abbott can squeeze out of the public servants will be passed onto employers via tax cuts, infrastructure investment or other incentives.


While it is wrong to narrowly define the working class as just blue collar workers or to workers who produce directly for the market, it is also wrong to say all wage earners are workers.

Vice chancellors and public service department heads, for example, have enormous salary packages and control over massive budgets and the lives of thousands of workers. They must be considered part of the ruling class.

Below them is a layer of middle managers paid extra to implement the plans coming from the top. While not part of the elite they do have power over the workers they monitor. They are part of the middle class.

Such wage earners, however, are only about 10 per cent of the overall paid workforce and certainly do not include all white collar workers.

When we define the working class by their relationship to the means of production it is clear they and their families make up the overwhelmingly majority of the population in Australia and other advanced economies. But there is still scepticism about their ability to organise and fight for their objective interests.

De-industrialisation, we’re told, also means “post-Fordism”. So it’s argued the large-scale mass-production methods pioneered by the Ford motor company are disappearing, replaced by a new era based on information technology and decentralised production. This makes organising in the workplace difficult if not impossible.

The arguments about de-industrialisation and post-Fordism, however, are over-hyped.

The decline of manufacturing is often used as proof that society is “post-industrial”.

But the industrial working class was never just manufacturing workers. It also includes mining (and other parts of the primary sector) as well as significant parts of the service sector. Waterfront workers, rail and road transport workers, postal workers, garbage collectors, bus drivers, warehouse workers are all service industry workers.

While the numbers of some kinds of industrial workers have fallen due to increased productivity, their importance to the overall economy remains. Australia’s waterfront workforce, for example, is about a third of what it once was but is still responsible for about 98 per cent of Australia’s imports and exports. This means their ability to disrupt production and the flow of profits remains.

Despite hype about the “weightless economy”, online shopping couldn’t exist without transport and postal workers to deliver online purchases. And the internet, computers and personal electronic devices all rely on manufactured goods.

The new service industries like fast food, education, financial services, retail and tourism, far from being different to the old industries, apply the same Fordist methods.

Scanning grocery items, assembling hamburgers, processing tax returns, checking in baggage at the airport or working in a call centre is not intrinsically different to working on a car assembly line. It is all repetitive and boring work where workers’ performance is constantly being measured.

Nor is there any evidence of the disappearance of large workplaces. Australia’s car plants and steel mills may be in decline but there are new concentrations of workers at universities, airports, hospitals, government offices, hotels and casinos.

Bunnings has replaced a lot of Australia’s corner hardware stores and brought thousands of workers together under one employer. Most of the “small shops” at our mega shopping centres are part of large retail chains. The number of workplaces in Australia employing more than 500 people increased between 2001 and 2009 to cover 11.4 per cent of the workforce, up from 8.4 per cent.


The rate of unionisation in Australia is currently very low, but there are a number of reasons for this.

The older better organised industries have been victims of restructuring while the new industries do not have the same traditions of organisation.

The outlawing of the closed shop and union preference deals, which kept union membership artificially high, has had a big effect.

The timid strategy of the union officials, who have avoided struggle to rely on getting Labor into office, hasn’t helped either. But it is important to see that unionisation rates aren’t low because workers’ objective interests have changed.

The relevance of class was clearly demonstrated in 2005 when millions of workers, white and blue collar, opposed the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation that attacked unions and radically deregulated the labour market.

The unions mobilised hundreds of thousands, and Labor’s opposition to WorkChoices was the decisive factor that allowed them to win the 2007 election in a landslide. So comprehensive was the defeat that Joe Hockey said there was an, “overwhelming mandate for the Labor Party’s policy of tearing up WorkChoices”.

While Labor went on to introduce WorkChoices lite and squandered that enthusiasm, people none the less were mobilised around a class issue and fought for their “rights at work”.

The argument that the working class is declining also tends to focus on changes in the developed Western nations.

When Marx was writing in the mid to late 1800s, peasants were the overwhelming majority even in Europe. Today close to a third of the world’s population are workers and there are huge concentrations of workers in countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, South Africa, and more recently India and China. It is estimated there are 300 million workers in China alone.

Along with the spread of industry globally we’ve also seen collective resistance. Workers have organised and shaken the system in South Africa, South Korea, Brazil and many other places, and more recently China.

On a global scale, the working class is not disappearing but is larger than ever.

Over 150 years ago Marx argued that the bourgeoisie produced in the growing working class “its own grave-diggers”. Those words are as true today as they were then.


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