This post reviews William Pelz’s moving paper, “The condition of the working class in the age of globalization” (2012). While Pelz does not present a new finding or develop a novel theory, the breadth of the data he presents is quite impressive. As the title suggests, the paper paints a general picture of the current condition of the working class as the social relations of production become increasingly global. The picture is extremely grim.
William A. Pelz sits on the Institute of Working Class History’s board of directors and is Professor and teaches history at Elgin Community College as a professor. According to York University’s website, Pelz “had hoped to pursue a career as a bus driver but later lowered his expectations and became an academic historian”. His main research focus is on the history of the labour movement and the left.
The first place to start is to define the working class. Pelz follows Van der Linden (2008) and broadly considers any individuals or groups who are subordinate to capital as workers (p. 23).
While workers’ nominal wages might have increased, their relative wages and their share of what they produce have declined. Pelz uses IMF’s reports to demonstrate that the unit cost of labour has fallen by 4% in the advanced countries and by 1.8% in the newly industrialised countries. This ongoing decline in the workers’ wages during past decades has widened the gap between social classes.
The working class today is more mobile and consequently, more global. Many workers leave their place of birth and move to other areas, within the borders of a nation-state or across it, in the search for better employment conditions and standard of living.
Despite the opportunity to move, the condition of the global labour class is still not good. It is estimated that about 1.8 billion people are working in the underground economy. Moreover, about 27 million people are victims are trafficking, e.g. as sex workers.
Thus, Pelz, following Spence (2011), concludes that “globalization, if not increasing unemployment, certainly does not eliminate it. At best, it changes the economy and affects dissimilar strata of the working class differently in various nation-states”.
Unfortunately, the two important paths to improve the workers’ condition or at least, prevent its exacerbation are not working as efficiently as they should be. The persistent or intensified nationalism among the workers’ around the globe prevents the international solidarity movements to progress. Moreover, the state, which can be used by the subordinate classes to obtain their rights, is on retreat, because “the very rich have been paying people to demand less government”. The conservatism of most labour institutions has further exasperated this condition.
Nonetheless, Pelz suggests that the only way to repaint this dark and gloomy picture is to struggle:
While there are no certainties of victory, it would seem that the only hope for the workers is in struggle. …
Workers would do well to remember the words of Goethe who once noted, you must conquer and rule or serve and lose, suffer or triumph, either hammer or anvil be. The choice would seem clear. (p. 28)
Linden, M. v. d. (2008). Workers of the world: essays toward a global labor history. Boston;Leiden;, Brill.
Pelz, W. A. (2012). “The condition of the working class in the age of globalization.” International Critical Thought 2(1): 23-29.
Spence, M. (2011). Globalization and Unemployment. Foreign Affairs. New York, N.Y.