Piven Refutes Theories on Labor Power

Taylor Fleming

In today’s complex world, where the terms of globalization and government seem to overshadow the advancement of the working class and modern labor movement, Frances Fox Piven posed to Colgate students and faculty the question, “Can the decline of labor power in the U.S. be reversed?” On Thursday, November 5, Piven, distinguished author and Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, delivered a lecture in which she invoked her opinions of union and labor in the United States.

The lecturer refuted significant theories of the status of power in the working class, and questioned the possible reasoning behind current conditions in labor unions. The popular argument, according to Piven, features the view that there’s the declining position of the working class due to “neo-liberal globalization” and “post-war restructuring,” which has created a “race to the bottom” for Western countries, particularly the United States.

In order to oppose these commonly-held theories regarding the working class and labor unions, Piven first investigated the ideas from which workers are believed to derive their power. First, she argued that workers’ opinions are integrated, though not without some “disappointment,” into society through the system of “political democracy.” Piven then brought up the idea of labor power, calling on Karl Marx’s theories of worker solidarity.

Utilizing past examples of each concept, Piven asserted that “political democracy and labor power worked together over time” to create an effective system for the working class to rely on.

In the “complex” structures of the modern world, globalization and neo-liberalism may have weakened old labor institutions, but not without the creation of new opportunities such as “economic exchange” and an “increase of specialization and integration.”

Thus, Piven thoroughly disputed widely accepted theories concerning the decline in status of the working class. Years of research in welfare policy and the war on poverty suggested to Piven that there might be a “different problem.” This challenge, according to Piven, lies within the structure of unions. The tendency of union leaders to make “new ties” with private company owners and the government became “a failure” for the unions as they were no longer able to respond effectively to the workers who they were supposed to represent. In the unions of the 1930s, lack of recognition of these problems led to long-term inefficiency and discontent.

However, Piven asserted that awareness of past mistakes and knowledge of the modern working class will ensure a hopeful future. Union leaders must “optimize” on the new opportunities that globalization offers. The creation of a “new labor defiance” and recognition of the problems within the working class of America are absolutely imperative because, as Piven believes, “without labor, democratic politics will diminish.”

The Colgate feedback was both respectful and inquisitive. Professor of Sociology Rhonda F. Levine expressed her confidence in Piven’s positive contribution to the Colgate community.

“The lecture provided a compelling case for understanding the potential power of subordinate groups even in the context of corporate dominance,” Levine said.