A production process in which workers do the same type of work with little division of labor can be thought of as “simple” cooperation.5Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Penguin, 1990, 445, 454, 465. Cooperation without the division of labor can improve efficiency, like evoking competitiveness among coworkers doing the same task or saving money by sharing the means of production, e.g., weavers doing the same work side by side in a single workshop. When workers just work side by side on separate but identical tasks, rather than coordinate production of a given commodity or assist one another, production requires minimal social coordination among workers, which undercuts their unity and thus power.6Ibid., 442.
Simple cooperation can be completely asocial if workers are not in proximity. For example, in the original cottage industry, peasants made textile products at home when they could find time away from the fields. Although multiple peasants cooperated to produce cloth for the same capitalist, their spatial dispersal across multiple cottages was an obstacle to their collective power.7Ibid., 591. Their work in the fields, planting or harvesting crops in parallel, was just as asocial and disempowering; “the dispersal of the rural workers over large areas breaks their power of resistance.”8Ibid., 638. Without spatial and social integration, the peasantry of Nineteenth-century Europe lacked association—“much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes,” nothing more than the sum of its parts—and therefore lacked the foundation for resistance.9Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, Norton, 1978, 608.
The second form of cooperation, which Marx called manufacture (not to be confused with how we use the word today), is based on the division of labor.10Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 485. In manufacture, the division of labor is limited by the handicraft skills of various artisans, skills that science has not been able to incorporate into machines.11Ibid., 458. What was innovative about manufacture was that it integrated artisans into a single production process—often concomitant with spatially concentrating them in a single workshop—so that their handicrafts can be specialized for the final product, e.g., wheelwrights specializing in making wheels for carriages.12Ibid., 455-456.
The specialization of each worker in a part of the production process can give rise to a mutual interdependence among them and therefore a necessary amount of socialization, especially when they all coordinate on producing each commodity. For instance, in wire production, one worker draws the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, etc.13Ibid., 464. But manufacture is less social if the final product is just an amalgam of various parts, each made by a specialized worker in isolation. In this case, cooperation is so asocial that the handicrafts could be dispersed into separate workshops, as Marx observed of watchmaking in Switzerland.14Ibid., 461-462. This precludes any socializing in production, interrupting the chain that could otherwise be used to leverage sociality into unity and from such unity, workers’ power.
Marx’s third category, large-scale industry, covers production processes based on complex machinery, which enabled capitalists to maximize the division of labor. By dissecting the production process into minute parts that can be implemented by machines, handicraft skill is transferred from workers to machines, and the former are left to mind or assist the latter.15Ibid., 545. In contrast with manufacture, workers are now “deskilled” and replaceable, but their work is even more social. They are engaged in a sophisticated choreography synchronized with the machines and each other, requiring face-to-face, verbal, social coordination to keep commodities flowing through the machinery. Sociality is inherent in large-scale industry: “the co-operative character of the labour process is in this case a technical necessity dictated by the very nature of the instrument of labour.”16Ibid., 508. Spatially concentrating workers is necessary, too, because the means of production must be located in a single place so that machinery can be jointly operated and production can flow seamlessly from one step to the next. Large-scale industry inevitably brings workers together.
Marx and Engels were optimistic that the material organization of production within advanced industrial factories would be the social foundation upon which workers would unite, fight back, and ultimately revolt:
The advance of industry, whose involuntary but willing promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the workers, due to competition, with their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of large-scale industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products for itself. What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, are its own gravediggers.17Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, Norton, 1978. 483.
Although those graves were not dug in the West, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) took advantage of the social associations among factory workers intrinsic to industrial production to develop and successfully apply a sophisticated organizing methodology.
Promoted today by Jane McAlevey, this methodology prioritizes social relationships among workers and leverages informal social groups in a workplace by identifying “organic leaders” who have clout in those groups, persuading them to join the struggle, and winning the active support of their followers.18Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Oxford, 2016, 30–34. The methodology was successful in organizing factories in the 1930s and it continues to be successful today in workplaces that can be categorized as large-scale industry but are not factories, namely, logistics warehouses.
Amazon’s distribution centers require socially and spatially concentrated cooperation to efficiently take in, pack, and ship out products. This has given organizers the social foundations for unionization campaigns in the US and abroad, including what is now the most celebrated labor victory in decades: the unionization of the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island by the independent Amazon Labor Union. Despite Amazon’s best attempts to reduce the time in which workers can chat with each other by speeding up and monitoring work and by spatially separating workers under the pretext of Covid-19 social distancing, labor in large-scale industry is an inherently social process. After worker-organizers in Staten Island learned the methodology by reading communist CIO organizer William Z. Foster, they successfully leveraged the social relationships forged by production itself as well as sites of socialization outside the workplace, such as the sidewalk, bus stops, and bus rides.19Justine Medina, “How We Did It,” Labor Notes, April 1, 2022; Luis Feliz Leon, “Amazon Workers on Staten Island Clinch a Historic Victory,” Labor Notes, April 1, 2022, https://labornotes.org/2022/04/amazon-workers-staten-island-clinch-historic-victory.