Are “uberised” employees part of the working class?

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We are publishing below two letters from ICC sympathisers aimed at continuing the reflection that arose in a meeting in France on 15 May 2020 on the subject of the nature and composition of the working class. During this discussion some participants questioned what affect “uberisation” of work had on the composition of the working class. In other words, do the “uberised” employees belong to the working class? We welcome the comrades’ efforts of reflection and their willingness to express their concerns. The letters from the comrades make two contributions to this debate which will be continued at other ICC meetings. The ICC is committed to developing its position on this subject and we will publish further material in our press dealing with it.

Contribution to the reflection on: “what is the working class? who is part of the working class?” (L.)

Generally speaking, the conditions of production of wealth have not changed since the 19th century, when capitalism appeared in the Western countries (for Great Britain, in the 18th century). The working class is still the class that produces all the wealth and will continue to exist as long as surplus value is produced. Marx's definition specifies that the working class does not own the means of production, it only has its labour power to produce surplus value, in an associated manner, in exchange for a wage. However, in the 19th century, the proletariat was mainly concentrated in the primary (extraction and exploitation of natural resources) and secondary (transformation of basic materials into goods) sectors. Workers worked alongside each other and they could easily interact and organise themselves.

Following the ascendance of capitalism, the composition of the proletariat has changed linked to the development of other sectors. The tertiary sector, which included public servants (in French “fonctionnaires”) in charge of administering and organising the life of society, now includes many more workers, who participate in the valorisation of commodities, are paid a minimum wage and no longer have any hope of easily climbing the social ladder; this is the case in the Post Office sector (which includes fewer and fewer workers with public servant status), in Education, in Health Care, in Public Transport (where the status of public servant is also disappearing).

The bourgeoisie is always looking for “undercover” ways to further squeeze the working class: Britain has introduced a policy of “fire and re-hire”, which allows employers to terminate existing contracts of employment and replace them with much less “beneficial” contracts for the workers. An article on the situation in the UK [1] mentions this new devious practice, used by Tesco, British Telecom, British Gas and bus companies. It was also in Britain that the status of the self-employed “worker” was first introduced, in working for Uber, Deliveroo and other mail delivery companies, parcel delivery companies, etc.

At the last meeting, it was quite right to defend the working class affiliation of these “independent” workers. Even if they don't work in an associated way, they participate in the valorisation of the commodity labour power, by delivering meals to workers, transporting parcels, cleaning offices, etc.

Struggles have also taken place in Britain, in different sectors, involving temporary agency workers: “In March 2021, 150 porters, cleaners, switchboard operators and catering staff employed at Cumberland County Hospital by the equipment company Mitie, led a first day of action through the union, Unison, over a failure to pay them overtime...”

Today, there are fewer and fewer industrial workers, machinery having replaced them, but the technicians who operate and maintain the machines are workers, since they also participate in the production of value.

As capitalism has spread throughout the world, there are fewer and fewer small farms and now they are amalgamated into large agricultural companies managed on an industrial basis; these (farm) workers are part of the working class.

The working class has always been heterogeneous but the workers in peripheral countries do not have the historical experience of workers in central countries and are more likely to be influenced by the democratic sirens that divert their struggle into the trade union or into participation in elections.

So, the struggles of the workers in the central countries will be decisive in giving a lead to the workers from around the world in the development of a pre-revolutionary situation.

People from other classes can join the working class struggle by supporting revolutionary groups and by being convinced that only communist revolution can bring a viable future for humanity.

Experience has shown that occupying factories is no longer an effective means of struggle and that there is no power in being confined to the factory. On the contrary, the extension of the struggle and communications with other sectors is what empowers the struggle. The last movement against pension reform in France, for example, saw a wide range of sectors converge in the streets, including the public and private sectors, temporary workers, those on fixed-term contracts, lawyers and the unemployed. Even if some workers do not work in an associated manner inside the big companies, the attack on the pension system was (and can be in future) a powerful unifying factor.

In conclusion, today, in the epoch of the decomposition of capitalism, all the workers traditionally associated producers of surplus value, in the factories but also the temporary workers, workers in primary and secondary education, basic administrative staff, those in precarious jobs: self-employed workers who work in isolation but can be drawn into large (class) movements, all those who participate in the valorisation of the commodity to one degree or another, are part of the working class. The bourgeoisie does everything it can to prevent the workers from being "together" and tries to divide them, but the common interest of the workers, the struggle to defend wages, pensions, sick pay, working hours, holidays, resisting lay-offs, in short opposing the increase in exploitation, inexorably unites them.

L, 19/05/2021

Reader's letter from comrade Patche

At the last ICC meeting (Saturday 15 May), some comrades raised the question of the nature of the working class in a society where a phenomenon described as “uberisation” (named after the company Uber, a pioneer of this sector) in what is called “the gig economy” has taken root over the last decade or so. It is important to ask whether these new workers belong to the proletariat or whether they come from classes outside the proletariat that belong to the petty bourgeoisie, because the answer to this question has important consequences, particularly political ones. It determines whether or not we should defend these workers based on whether they are on a working class terrain or on a terrain outside the working class.

According to the ICC, in its Resolution on the Balance of Forces between the Classes (2019), The increase in unemployment and precariousness has also highlighted the phenomenon of the "Uberisation" of work. By using an internet platform to find a job, Uberisation disguises the sale of labour power to a boss as a form of ‘individual enterprise’, while reinforcing the impoverishment and precariousness of these ‘entrepreneurs’. The ‘Uberisation’ of individual work is a key factor in enforcing atomisation, and increasing the difficulty of going on strike, because the self-exploitation of these workers considerably hinders their ability to fight collectively and develop solidarity against capitalist exploitation.

Several points are important in this resolution. First of all, it states that Uberisation “disguises the sale of labour power to a boss”. According to the ICC, this form of self-employment is just a legal artifice. Moreover, in Great Britain, the Supreme Court has decided to reclassify Uber drivers as employees, thus showing that even the legal organs of the bourgeois state are not fooled by such a charade. If Uber workers are not considered as self-employed and, on the other hand, they sell their labour power to a boss, can't they be considered as belonging to the working class? The rest of the resolution is less clear on this question.

It argues that “the ‘Uberisation’ of individual work is a key factor in enforcing atomisation and increasing the difficulty of going on strike” and it “considerably hinders their ability to fight collectively” against capitalist exploitation. It is undeniable that the nature of the task carried out, which differs according to the service provided, though the main ones are delivering meals or working as a driver- as well as the mystified belief that Uber workers are their own bosses and answerable to no one but themselves - play a role in atomising the class and breaking the necessary solidarity between workers. Let's remember that for Marx capitalism, through the concentration and centralisation of capital, results in associated labour which, in the end, reinforces the class consciousness of workers who are collectively confronted with the same reality of savage exploitation. This is fundamentally what distinguishes the proletariat from the small peasantry, which is also exploited, but dispersed across the land, preventing it from forming bonds of solidarity.

But if Uber workers are atomised and dispersed and if it is extremely difficult for them to form solidarity links and lead collective struggles or strikes, are they not still a part of the working class, the proletariat? The fact that they are in the rearguard of the working class because of their precarious working conditions, does not mean that we should then deny these workers their status as exploited proletarians, separated from the means of production and condemned to sell their labour power to subsist, which is the definition of the proletarian according to Marx. The modalities of their exploitation could moreover be compared to that of piecework wages analysed by Marx in Book 1 of Capital (in chapter 21), the profitability of their task being calculated not in hours of work but in the number of tasks carried out, further increasing the competition between workers, each one seeking to accomplish as many tasks as possible in the course of the day.

Just before concluding, it is important to look at the real combativeness or otherwise of the Uberised workers. As we have said, their atomisation, the competition in this modern form of piecework, is constantly undermining solidarity between these workers. Yet in several places around the world we have seen spontaneous forms of struggle emerge without the creation or participation of any unions, the instruments of collaboration with the bourgeois state and defence of the capitalist mode of production. In Los Angeles, Uber workers spontaneously went on strike to fight against their working conditions. This is also the case in other countries and with other (gig economy) companies, in Italy, the UK, etc. It is true that these workers sometimes form unions or seek support from existing unions. Communist must reject these dead ends, arguing instead for the specific instruments of the class struggle, notably the wildcat strike, that rejects any union involvement. But such mistakes do not warrant placing the “uberised workers” outside the proletariat, and locating them with the petty-bourgeoisie.

In recent years, the quantity of precarious jobs has increased and the working class is the victim of this process, and the “Uberisation” of the workers is one of the expressions. To say that the Uberised workers do not belong to the proletariat because of their atomisation, their difficulties in placing themselves on the terrain of the working class, necessitates a deep and serious discussion based on a Marxist analysis. It is only through pursuing a polemical but fraternal debate that the working class is able to avoid the traps set by the bourgeoisie and its ideologues and to advance the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the emancipation of the proletariat.

Fraternal greetings, Patche


Readers' letters