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A critique that struggles alongside, not against, the working class (Work Work Work reviewed in ‘Journal of Labor and Society’)

Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle
By Michael D. Yates
$12.00 / 978-1-58367-965-4 / 216 pages

Reviewed by Winona G.W. Wood

“It takes boldness and courage to attack capital. But attack we must” (p. 207). In Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle Michael D. Yates draws on a lifetime of service to the working class to provide a compelling account of the horrors of wage labor and, crucially, a way out. He first paints a bleak, but necessary and realistic, picture of work under capitalism, especially how it has been organized due to the dictates of the U.S. and global economy. Then he pivots to a program of emancipation for the working class, with lessons from his experience in the labor movement. Yates offers a comprehensive analysis that is quite sobering. He writes in a very direct and accessible way, which is useful for engaging a broad audience.

Work under capitalism is hell, and Yates weaves the lived experience of workers into a broader account of the objective qualities of wage labor. The book begins with an overview of the experiences and effects of work under capitalism, followed by a line-by-line broadside against the dogma of neoclassical economics, a fundamental element of capitalism’s self-justifying superstructure. Yates details how these economists are utopians who paint the objective exploitation, expropriation, and control of capitalist labor markets as transactional equality and efficiency. Here, the method is key, as these neoclassical economists tend to rely on quantitative assessments that cannot examine the qualitative character of work. They fail to consider and capture the “staggering illness and injury rates—36 per 100” experienced by meat-packing workers in the United States, how child-laborer Archie “squeezes himself into a narrow gap to dig blindly for gold in a deep underground pit” for 10–12 hours a day, and the “minimal work. Boredom … isolation. The lack of benefits. The monotony. The underemployment” experienced by clerical workers, among many tragic others (pp. 56, 62, 67).

Yates moves seamlessly between the specific and the general, bringing the composition of today’s working class into sharp relief by types of labor and associated harms. All these workers have alienation in common. Yates presents how capitalists utilize managerial control over the labor process, deepening estrangement and dehumanization. Such techniques help maximize profits. They also serve as the perversion of solidarity in team production, cross- training of mundane sub-tasks, and management by stress, in a broader context of automation, subcontracting, and just-in-time inventories. For example, just- in-time production is applied to labor, with scheduling determined at the last minute as needed. In higher education, adjunct instructors are assigned courses by semester and paid by the hour for class time, resulting in precarious and irregular livelihood that provides management more leverage. The interests of capital dominate, as managerial control helps increase the rate of production, without any concern for the increasing misery of workers.

Work Work Work is a wakeup call; it is a critique. Yates incorporates an objective assessment of the current class structure and advances a comprehensive program of attack for the working class. Importantly, he takes note of the current composition and internal contradictions of the working class, identifying divisions along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and religion in the United States and internationally. The horrors of work under capitalism are experienced quite differently depending upon where workers find themselves among these divisions, as well as the location in the Global North or South. Yates diagnoses these divisions as pernicious forms of oppression and obstacles for the working class to overcome.

Yates then shifts focus to the history, current character, and development of working-class organizations and politics. He deploys firsthand experience laboring under exploitative conditions and fighting for social change, including childhood jobs, teaching the children of steelworkers in a university, and working directly for unions. For example, Yates worked for the United Farm Workers at the height of their influence. He revisits the stunning success and tragic decline of the union in organizing superexploited farmworkers in California, critiquing Cesar Chavez’s cult of personality and the lack of internal democracy. Regarding the present moment, economic crisis, ecological collapse, and the covid-19 pandemic have clearly revealed the exploitation and barbarism that resides at the heart of the global capitalist system. The left is resurgent and mobilizing after a historic decline. Yates highlights both the potential and pitfalls that are emerging. He notes that while the labor movement is awakening, it pales in comparison to the union density and strike activity of the past. Additionally, unions themselves lack internal democracy. He details how both labor unions and the leaders in the Democratic Socialists of America tend to collaborate with the Democratic Party and management respectively, undermining their overall effectiveness. These tendencies weaken revolutionary trajectories. Nevertheless, the widespread disillusionment with capitalism and revolt that is emerging is establishing a hopeful position.

This is the terrain of struggle in which those who work for a living find themselves. Yates concludes with a program for the working class to attain leadership over society, informed by the labor movement’s failures and successes. This includes a sketch of how democratic organs of working- class power might operate and a path to winning this power. Education in working-class organizations should play a paramount role, as workers must be conscious of their class position and the objective character of the capitalist mode of production if goals beyond immediate concessions are to be achieved. Following previous critiques, he argues for the centrality of participatory democracy in all working-class organizations, emulating bottom-up structures that have been fundamental to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. The ecological crisis in food production can be overcome by working-class alliances with peasants working toward land redistribution, such as employed by Brazil’s Landless Workers and Peasants Movement, and agriculture must be overhauled and brought meaningfully into the cities, done most successfully in socialist Cuba. Divisions within the working class must be accounted for and counteracted within working-class institutions, with solidarity shown to related movements such as the Black freedom struggle. Yates pays particular attention to working-class unions and political parties, both of which must be truly independent from the capitalist class.

Work Work Work starts with the premise that work under capitalism is fundamentally flawed and argues for its ultimate abolition. Yates advocates for unalienated forms of productive and reproductive labor as an alternative, directed toward meeting human needs in a sustainable and socially beneficial manner. The “what” of this program is socialist and the “how” is revolutionary, arguing for the elevation of working people as a new ruling class dedicated to the end of exploitation, expropriation, special oppressions, environmental degradation, and work itself. His critique struggles with, not against, the working class. “The implication of everything said in this book is that the working class must change the world. There is no choice” (p. 216). If unchanged, the havoc wreaked by capital upon the earth will fatally undermine the conditions for life itself, and only an empowered working class can overcome it. I highly recommend Work Work Work for all educators, scholars, and organizers working for humanity’s livable future on this earth.

Find this review in Journal of Labor and Society XX (2023) 1–4

Work Work Work: Labor, Alienation, and Class Struggle

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