Venti Latte with a Pump of Marx

Date: 08 January 2023

Author: Indescribled 

Tags: N. America, Economics

News of unionizations and the growth of the labor movement are almost daily occurrences in the United States recently. Starbucks is unionizing across the country, the Amazon Labor Union won a historic victory in April 2022, University of California workers are on strike, a rail strike seemed possible that threatened to cripple the US economy, and countless more labor victories and movements are growing. As Marxists we support all of these unions (except police unions)—when workers are coming together to demand more from the capitalists it is always good news. Marxist political economy is a complicated topic, with Karl Marx’s Capital renowned as an incredibly difficult book to read, but it is also increasingly important and ever-relevant for us to understand as we are exploited and struggle within and alongside the labor movement.

Organize Amazon Workers contingent in the Peoplehood Parade, Philadelphia, PA, Joe Piette, photo cropped (CC BY-SA 2.0). Retrieved via the Communist Party.

First, what is a commodity? The Economic Institute of the Academy of Sciences (EIAS) of the USSR described it as twofold:

Under capitalism, basically everything is a commodity because everything is available for exchange. Exchange by itself is not capitalism, exchange on a mass scale where everything is commodified and the ownership of factories and businesses is private is capitalism. Healthcare is a commodity, housing, food, transportation, entertainment—pick anything and it has almost certainly been commodified. Commodities are sold by the capitalists—that is how they make their money. Workers do not own any commodities to sell, except one.

Labor-power is the only commodity a worker has for sale. Why is it called labor-power instead of just labor? Labor is a process that transforms nature through human activity. Labor-power is the physical and/or mental capacity to perform labor. We sell our labor-power as a commodity usually in timed increments—for a certain amount of hours, for a set amount per week, per month, and each for a corresponding amount of money. A worker does not have a factory that supplies them with commodities to sell. And a worker does not sell their labor-power simply for fun—they are forced to sell their labor-power in order to be able to survive. Rent, utilities, food, transportation, and more; all vital for human survival, are commodified under private ownership, and therefore made scarce—requiring workers to sell their labor-power in increasing increments in order to get by. The only purchaser of labor-power is the capitalist class and the commodity of labor-power is more important than any other commodity—more than any raw material, than any tool, any machine, is the actual labor-power of a worker. It is so important to the capitalist because labor-power is the source of value. 

Let’s look at how labor-power creates value. When a worker is paid by a capitalist for selling their labor-power it is in the form of a wage. $7.25/hr is the federal minimum wage in the United States—the lowest amount a worker can be paid in the country for selling one hour of their labor-power. For ease of understanding, let’s use $10/hour and consider the worker is a barista. In one hour, they are paid $10, but how many drinks does it take for the capitalist to recoup those $10? Probably about two on average, at $5 each. Even if our barista makes 10 drinks in an hour, they still are paid $10. The first two drinks paid for their wages for the hour, the next eight go to the capitalist. Every bit of value provided beyond replacing the worker’s cost is known as surplus value, which goes entirely to the capitalist, not the worker. In selling their labor-power, the worker gets just enough to survive, while the capitalist reaps massive benefits. The situation is mystified by the way that the worker is paid:

But since the workman receives his wages after his labour is performed, and knows, moreover, that what he actually gives to the capitalist is his labour, the value or price of his labouring power necessarily appears to him as the price or value of his labour itself.

Karl Marx (Capital, Chapter X)

The barista, receiving $10/hour, may not realize that they are really only being paid for two of the 10 drinks they make in an hour, because they are paid after the fact.

Now, it’s time to go back to current events and tie these terms in with unions, strikes, and the profit of capitalists. Unions usually form with the intent of improving the conditions, wages, and benefits of workers. Demands made by a union are almost always economic in nature, because that is the entire reason they formed. The current rail workers are asking for paid leave and raises—they want time to see their families. A strike is when a group of workers withhold their labor-power for a certain time period. If one rail worker stops working it will, in the grand scheme of things, not have a big impact. But if an entire union of rail workers, like Rail Workers United, goes on strike then it could be up to 125,000 workers withholding their labor. As President Joe Biden himself admits, “[A] rail shutdown would devastate our economy. Without freight rail, many U.S. industries would shut down.” The impact would be a massive ripple effect—crippling supply chains, and bringing widespread devastation to many parts of the economy. Transportation of food for example would hurt everyone. Make no mistake, the workers are not wrong in their demands for better conditions and wages—the capitalists are always at fault. While labor-power is being withheld, surplus value is also not being generated. With no labor-power adding value, capitalists are not making commodities in their factories to sell. Their investment in raw materials, land, machinery, other private property forms, and more are all sitting idle—not generating more capital. The workers cannot go on strike indefinitely—they need to be able to pay rent and buy food at least; however, the capitalist also cannot have capital sitting idle indefinitely. Workers are almost always the favorite to win. Even when the odds are stacked against them, such as the Amazon Labor Union, workers still succeed.

Fighting for economic benefits helps show workers what the government’s attitude is toward them. In the case of the rail workers, the majority of government officials have made their stance clear—they do not support a worker’s right to strike. As mentioned before, unions form specifically to fight for economic benefits. Unions usually do not have the overthrow of capitalism in mind, not left to their own devices at least. 

The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.

V.I. Lenin (What Is To Be Done?, Chapter II)

Again, it is not at all a bad thing for workers to unionize and fight against employers. As Marxists we must understand the situation and support unions where possible—we have a common enemy in the capitalists and a common ally as we are all members of the working class.

Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy, is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.

— V.I. Lenin (Ibid.)

Raising the union struggle to a revolutionary socialist struggle does not mean attempting to take over the union, to tell workers they are doing something wrong, or to force workers to join a revolutionary Party. We fully support unionization efforts, which are led by the workers. Showing working class solidarity and struggling alongside comrades unionizing is only one aspect of the broader struggle toward socialism.