Venti Latte with a Pump of Marx
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.
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:
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.