A Changing Proletariat
An important change in the composition of the employed working class is the proportion of workers of color, which grew from about 15-16% of workers in production, transportation and material-moving occupations as well as in service occupations in 1981 to 40% of each of these broad occupational groups by 2010.
Immigration has played a major role in this increase. Along with African Americans and women, immigrant workers will fill many of the low-wage jobs projected by the BLS. Some will also join the labor movement. Reflecting this, 200,000 Latinos joined unions between 2011 and 2014, while 96,000 Asian and Pacific Islanders joined in one year between 2013 and 2014.
Probably most commented on, however, is the decline of manufacturing employment from 27% of private employees in 1980 to 11% in 2010. It is this change that most often leads to speculation about the declining significance and power of the working class. While manufacturing has been a declining source of employment for a long time, the dramatic loss of nearly five million manufacturing, production and nonsupervisory jobs since 1980 calls for an explanation.
Many, particularly in the labor movement, argue that the culprit was trade. Clearly some industries like basic steel, textiles, garments, etc. saw big losses to imports. But these losses account for only about 20% of the five million. Nor does “offshoring,” which grew over much of this period but recently slowed down, account for massive losses as domestic content in U.S. manufacturing still averages about 85-90%, well above the global average of 72%. As the United Nations observed, “Large economies, such as the United States or Japan, tend to have significant internal value chains and rely less on foreign imports.”
The problem with trade-based explanations is that manufacturing output hadn’t shown a decline, but had grown in real terms by 131% from 1982 to 2007 just before the Great Recession reduced output. At an annual average of 5% this is only slightly less than the 6% annual growth of the 1960s.
The mystery behind this massive loss of jobs lies in both the destruction of capital, on the one hand, and its increased application in the last 30 years, on the other. The disappearance of manufacturing jobs hasn’t followed the more or less steady upward trajectory of imports since the mid-1980s. Rather, massive job destruction has occurred during the four major recessions of this period as capital itself has been destroyed: in 1980-82 2.5 million manufacturing production jobs lost; 1990-92 725,000; 2000-03 about 678,000, and during the Great Recession another two million jobs gone.
Between the recessions of 1980-82 and 1990-92, and 2000-03 output increased by 6% a year, but employment remained flat due primarily to the large productivity gains, averaging over 3% a year achieved by capital through the application of new technology and lean production methods often supplemented or even supplanted by biometric and electronic monitoring, measuring and enforcing of labor standardization and intensification.
One measure of the intensification of labor over these years has been the decrease in break time from 13% of the work day in the 1980s to 8% in the 2000s for those in routine goods and service-producing jobs.
Both growing investment and work intensification are behind this rising productivity. Real private fixed assets in manufacturing doubled between 1979 and 2014, while manufacturing employment fell by over 40%. While fixed investment for the whole economy, like GDP, grew more slowly since the early 1980s than in U.S. capital’s heydays following World War II, the proportion of non-residential fixed investment in GDP has actually been larger than back then: 11-12% of GDP compared to 10% during the 1960s.
As a result, the capital-labor ratio for the economy as a whole, which was basically flat in the 1970s, rose in the 1980s and accelerated during the 1990s, increasing by almost two-thirds up to the Great Recession.
The increase in “service” employment, on the other hand, is explained by the shorter hours worked in many of these occupations, the statistical shift of outsourced services from the manufacturing column to services such as food services, accounting, data processing, security, etc, and above all huge increases in the commodified labor of social reproduction.
As millions of women entered the workforce from the 1950s onward, and their hours of work increased from 925 a year in 1979 to 1,664 in 2012, with those of women with children growing from 600 to 1560 over that period, capital stepped in and organized the commodification of many aspect of social reproduction formerly done in the home such as healthcare, elder care, food services, etc.
This trend created some eight million new service jobs from 1990 to 2010. Millions more were created to maintain capital’s expanding facilities and buildings and clean up its accumulating mess. Few of these jobs are “white collar,” most are physical, their pay is low, and many are filled by women, workers of color, and immigrants.