As of 2016 more than 80% of active workers in the united $tates are employed by the service—or tertiary—sector, a large variety of jobs which are defined primarily against the traditional backdrop of “productive” labor employed in agriculture, industry or resource extraction. This is where a bulk of the so-called “unskilled” workforce is employed, particularly in retail and trade jobs, as salespersons, stockers and cashiers. With such prevalence—more than 15 million people being employed in retail trade alone—it demands more than just a stereotyped explanation of conditions and tasks. Even in the First World, we cannot, nor should we, rule out the importance of transforming workplace struggles into revolutionary ones. That said, we must understand exactly what peculiar relations exist here, to say the least, and what problems they pose/how we might solve them to transform the everyday cycle of economistic struggle into revolutionary class struggle on the side of the global proletariat.
There are a number of important factors to consider about the type of work and the environment when approaching the question of struggle among service sector workers. On its face, we must consider what their relationship to production is and how it is important to the politicization of their conditions. Service work is locked firmly in the tertiary sector, or that sector that Marx described as primarily involving the realization of commodities, rather than their production, wherein industrial capital sacrifices part of the surplus-value extracted in the production process to the sphere of circulation as the profit of the “merchant”. This ranges from the hourly waged workers in retail, to self-employed professionals who contract with advertising firms (although these are sometimes lumped into a quaternary sector dealing with information, nevertheless, they are parasitic outgrowths on productive capital). Of course these two jobs have little in common despite the sectoral similarity. Nevertheless, it is clear that those in the service sector are not productive of surplus-value, but simply aid in its realization as profit. Therefore, despite being generally organized in a capitalistic setting, these workers are not productive in a capitalist sense, that is, of surplus-value.
This may appear on its face to be a pedantic point, since to a low-wage service sector employee, their conflict with management remains constant. However, the division between unproductive and productive labor has a fundamental impact on our political practice. The problem is twofold: (1) Since the workers do not produce surplus-value, their contribution to the concentration of capital and the expansion of the capitalist system is external, indirect. Productive capital surrenders part of the surplus-value to pay for circulation, and their wages are mere faux frais of that sphere of distribution. (2) Since they do not produce surplus-value, they are not exploited in the strict Marxian sense, and therefore the politics of their contradictions with management are put into a different politico-economic context. So what does this mean for the reality of class struggle in a service/retail environment? Before we can answer this question more exactly, we must more precisely locate that section among which it would be valuable to agitate. There is very little to be done at this moment for the upper echelons of this sector—some self-employed, all comfortably petty bourgeois. These are the individuals employed as artists, proprietary salespeople, skilled craftspeople and consultants.
Rather, for the purposes of this analysis we are interested in those employed regularly in a capitalistic setting, receiving a wage as the primary payment for their work. These are the cashiers, sales associates, fast food workers, janitorial staff, etc. who still have a contradictory relationship with a bureaucratic structure above them. Even still, a number of challenges face us in actually mobilizing these workers politically, and away from the economistic self-interest that tends to define most unconscious (or petty bourgeois-conscious) workers’ struggles. In the united $tates and the First World more broadly, one of these is certainly the relatively high wages of the workers employed in this sector. Many workplaces now pay far above the minimum wage, with Walmart (the united $tates’ largest private employer) offering a starting rate of $11 per hour to all its associates, and even higher depending on one’s department. Not extravagant by any means, but they certainly aren’t revolting any time soon.
The recent increases in wages, and the promise of further increases, have severely hampered the development of worker organization and class struggle in these firms. Simply put, high wages in some firms have placed negative incentives on struggle, even around serious issues, as workers simply do not see the cost of struggling for their resolution as “worth it” when measured against these high wages. This is by no means the deciding factor, but clearly it does play a role, especially when so many are living above just mere subsistence. The overall condition of the workers is not reducible to wages, but at the same time we cannot discount them. The ability for workers to live in relative comfort and security has a huge impact on the impetus for class struggle, and so long as imperialism functions as it does, emphasizing the consumptive power of First World people over their productive power, this is not likely to change. Even across sectors, we cannot deny the impact that high wages have had in diminishing the support for class struggle, and qualitatively changing the standard of living enjoyed in the First World in comparison to the global majority in the Third World.
But even for those low-wage service workers, who live significantly less comfortably, what impact does their unproductive status have on the prospects for struggle? Does the technical lack of exploitation mean anything in the face of the hardships they experience? We must answer yes, in fact it does. The bourgeoisie will always, in the last instance, move to protect production over the unproductive sectors in society, on the basis that it is only production which can lead to accumulation. So follows the old saying, reiterated by Smith and Marx, that one grows rich from workers, but poor from servants. In a general crisis, the heights of bourgeois society would rather terminate a vast majority of those employed in the tertiary sector than allow permanent damage to the productive chain. This is why Marx says that it is ultimately the proletariat, who produce all surplus-value in society, that has the power to destroy class society by first seizing the means of production. For service workers, their status in the eyes of the bourgeoisie as unproductive workers makes their labor much more expendable.
It is inevitable that some will read “unproductive” as a moral categorization. That is unfortunate. It does not mean that these workers are unimportant in society, but rather that they have been rendered “unproductive” in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, who place primary importance on surplus-value extraction as the engine of accumulation. For us, the support of these workers is still important when it can be developed. However, their position is not the same as those in the industrial or even the agricultural sector, and therefore we cannot approach their predicament in the same way. The wages of productive workers are pegged, in many ways, to the values they create, as well as the historically determined reproduction cost of their labor, however the wages of unproductive workers are instead pegged only to this historical determination, hovering alongside or below the wages of the productive sector, and are dependent upon surplus from the productive sector. So in terms of concrete political work, this complicates our demands. For productive workers in the abstract, it is greater control over their production and underscoring the deviation in compensation and the value they produce. For unproductive workers, the issue is more complex.
Even so, there are many vectors through which revolutionaries can insert themselves at the forefront of workers’ grievances. The bourgeoisie in core countries, even while it pursues an overall policy of maintaining social peace, still comes into conflict with workers in their own countries on a regular basis. Class contradiction is restrained through the concessions to the First World working class. Its results are often greatly maligned by the bourgeoisie, but they have not been eliminated. One of the larger and more serious claims against the oppressive relations in the service sector is the outright theft of wages or guaranteed compensation. Even in the First World, this is extraordinarily common, and is one of the prime examples of ways in which management repays their privilege through strict service of the bourgeoisie’s interests.
There still remains a serious limitation, however. The propensity for these struggles to inform an economistic strategy is born out of the fact that capital makes no legal claim on stolen wages. Ultimately, bourgeois rights enforce the rights of individuals to be paid for their work, and it is one of the fundamental realizations of Marx that people can be exploited even while they are paid for their work. This is not truly the case with service workers and the petty bourgeoisie at large, so the issue of wage theft is further magnified in their political demands. The problem is that legal struggles can return the stolen funds, plus damages, and no higher ideological point is necessary. This is not the case with the general exploitation present in the capitalist system, and capital certainly does make legal claim on the surplus-value produced by the workers who have no legal right to demand it returned to them in any bourgeois court. So on the question of wage theft alone, a very serious campaign must be waged against simple “fair trade” appeals, that stop at the demands for compensation. We must illuminate to the workers what forces provide the impetus for wage theft among the management, who oftentimes do not directly pocket the money owed to their workers, but do so on behalf of the big bourgeois, who cycle down privileges to them.
Drawing further from this realization, another possibility for revolutionaries is underscoring the fact that the division between mental and manual labor that—especially in larger firms—is oftentimes practically irrelevant and serves a primarily political purpose. For the most part, there is no specific task performed by management which even “unskilled” workers cannot do, especially when combined with the relative high-technology in most of these firms. Most of the complicated tasks handled by management are automatically performed by computers, and for the most part the skill level needed to interact with this technology is seriously overstated. For instance, Walmart’s “point of sale” software automatically reorders items when they are sold, tracks sales, inventory and other statistics useful to the operation of the store. What’s more, these figures are available to any worker who cares to look at them. Primarily, the division of labor and abundant bureaucracies of these firms play a political role, providing the corporation overall with loyal representatives to carry out their interests against those of the workers. Their role is more to do with discipline than distribution.
This is definitely something that could be explored as the basis for the transition from economistic demands to something more revolutionary, but it is still dependent upon the leadership and solidarity of productive labor to push toward a final conclusion. This is for two reasons: firstly, despite handling the final distribution of commodities, they do not occupy the strategic engine of capitalist accumulation that is production. The takeover of the centers of distribution alone cannot suffice to actually put society in the hands of the proletariat. Only productive capital in the hands of revolutionaries is capable of transforming society in such a fundamental way, and this is not something which can be annexed by workers of the tertiary sector without leadership fundamentally emanating from it. In addition to this, there is the ideological gap existing between them, with the ideological impulses of retail workers especially more resembling that of the petty bourgeoisie and proprietor. Territory won by them in control over their firms put them in greater charge of capital not produced by them, and profits earned through the sale of commodities produced elsewhere. Were the unproductive mass of First World workers elevated into control over their industries, they would merely oversee, collectively, value-chains beginning in south, east and southeast Asia, and ending in their own consumption. Their livelihoods, still dependent upon productive capital, help to build loyalty to the bourgeoisie without direct leadership and solidarity with the proletariat.
This is true even in moving away from retail to other service work—like cosmetic and medical work, for instance—the dependency upon productive labor is the same. It is clear that a direct link must be formed throughout the process of struggle directly to workers in the productive sector, and in the First World that means emphasizing those links to the proletariat in the Third World, whose sweat produces the commodities First World workers consume, and whose surplus-labor forms the greater part of the wages that cycle down through the processes of super-exploitation and imperialist rent. That does not mean immaterial and esoteric calls for symbolic international action, but deep and serious work that ties labor action in these sectors to the productive sector.
In actuality, workers in distribution especially can have a tremendous effect in amplifying the consequences of strikes in the productive sector. Yet this cannot be merely coincidental. It must be the focus of our work, and we must continue to stress to the workers the necessity in actions organized across sectors, rather than confined ones that aim themselves only at the distinct (and in many cases petty bourgeois) interests of workers in only one sector. This also implies conflict between nativist, loyalist and racist workers, who are the majority, and progressives/revolutionaries. This is merely the microcosmic expression of internationalism, which takes the macrocosmic form of active national/land and anti-imperialist struggle. Building international ties, as well as uniting all who can be united, will be difficult. We do not discount the power of the subjective element.
Overall, the greatest single challenge to overcome in organizing workers in the service sector on a truly revolutionary basis is their relationship to imperialism and the international division of labor. Any effective struggle within this sector must be solidly linked to proletarian leadership in the productive sector, without question. In the First World this is complicated by the sheer size of the service sector in comparison to the productive sector, as the imperialist campaign for super-profits has lead the largest deliberate “deindustrialization” project in history.
The productive sector that remains in the First World has been fragmented by the labor aristocracy and their broad class control over the spheres of struggle among those still trapped in horrid working conditions, and even still this sector has been greatly reduced in size. Steadfast work must be done to counter labor aristocratic consciousness and class influence in the productive sector, work that can only be carried out by communists. If an organized and politically conscious working class in First World countries cannot be united with their Third World counterparts—that is, transformed from a parasitic enemy contingent into an active accomplice—then the effort has been wasted, and vital communist energies diverted to a deleterious project.
These notes by no means exhaustively answer the question of what deeper issues lay in organizing the service sector, it serves only to open discussion on the topic. Still many more peculiarities in class need to be discussed and further elucidated to fully grasp the overall problems in organizing within the service sector. What has been underscored here, however, is the need to firmly weld the movement of service workers to the broad movement for social and internationalist control over production. It remains true that only the proletariat is capable of leading the whole of humanity to communism, therefore the leading role of the proletariat and its vanguard—as well as the its location geographically—cannot be minimized.