Workers are those who produce or transform goods or provide services, for their own consumption and for that of others. Money payment for work does not always accompany its performance, although this is general in advanced economies.
Two problems are highlighted in analyzing workers as a social class: (1) the sources of the present position of workers in advanced economies and (2) the social and social-psychological consequences for workers of this position. The present position of workers will be related to the demands of modern technology and its associated working behavior, including managerial response in the form of industrial welfarism. The consequences for workers will be analyzed in terms of their new structural position in society as consumers and their resulting social outlook, including their class consciousness.
Agricultural workers . In preindustrial societies the central problem is to find food. For the person in a subsistence economy, there are no problems of his relations to work itself, survival providing the nexus between man and his agricultural work.
The circumstances of the agrarian worker change markedly when the products of his labor enter an exchange economy. This means that (1) there is a visible social division of labor in which most segments of the population consume products they do not produce; (2) the worker becomes consumer of many products not directly related to work itself; and (3) conditions of work and styles of living of persons following agricultural pursuits can be evaluated against innovation and novelty in the industrial and commercial spheres of life. The broad result is that in an exchange economy, the agricultural worker, as distinct from a producer in a subsistence habitat, shares many characteristics with industrial and commercial workers, including a marked shift to a self image as a consumer in society and, with the mechanization of agriculture, a position of “operative” in relation to an advanced agricultural technology.
Industrial and commercial workers . The influence of national economic development on the labor force can best be visualized in Figure 1. When a nation develops economically, human resources are shifted away from agriculture. Figure 1 relates the percentage of the population economically active in agriculture to the proportions employed in industry and commerce. It is based upon data for 64 nations but excludes several countries with specialized economies. The logarithmic scale is employed to emphasize the rate of change, and trend lines are estimated.
As agricultural activity employs a smaller proportion of the economically active population, there is an increase in manufacturing employment, up to a maximum of about 40 per cent in a balanced, advanced economy. On the other hand, with an identical decline in agricultural employment, the proportion in commerce increases (the maximum proportion in commerce so far observed is about 20 per cent).
Evidence from these 64 countries indicates that when the need for labor to produce goods and services increases, the increase is about twice as great in industry as in commerce. It is perhaps this fact alone that highlights the empirical reason for designating economically advanced economies as “industrial.”
Finally, it should be noted that the curves are very steeply inclined in the region of high proportions of agricultural employment, and flatten out when the agricultural portion of the economically active population falls to 40 per cent or less. This is one way of characterizing the “take-off” period in the growth of an economy. The rate of change from agricultural employment to commerce and industry is greatest at the earliest stages of the shift.
The most notable feature of an advanced economy is its high level of productivity for each unit investment of human energy. This increase in productivity is largely the result of improving the effectiveness of tools and equipment used to produce goods and services.
The environment of work for the worker is determined
Source: International Labor Office 1959.
by technology. Furthermore, working behavior itself is markedly influenced by the technologies employed.
A detailed consideration of the human consequences of technology in industry will (1) make clear the environment of work and (2) provide a basis for analyzing the man-machine relationship, probably the foremost analytical problem that presents itself to students of industrial social systems.
Two industrial revolutions . The first industrial revolution, usually associated with the introduction of steam power into industry, was characterized by machine and process design that took man as its model. Technology was designed to do faster, or more accurately, what man could do with his own hands and brain. Man still retained two fundamental contributions to work in this system: through his technical knowledge, training, and memory, he could program machines and processes to determine their operations, while through his senses he could monitor operations to determine their accuracy and feed back signals to correct any deviations (Dubin 1958, chapters 10 and 11).
Thus, man was essential to the technology of the first industrial revolution, and machine design took this into account. Initially, the physiological limits of man were the criteria of machine design, but it was early recognized that most of the physiological work could be transferred to the machine. Then attention was turned to fitting the programming and control functions of machine operators to machine design in the most adequate manner. This took the general form of putting as much of the programming as possible into the machine by preset and predetermined speeds, feeds, and operating cycles. There remained for the “operative” minor physiological work, together with sensing operations and feedback of control signals.
The human consequences of complex machine design in factory and office were as follows (Dubin 1958, chapter 11):
(1) As programming of operations became integral with the machine, there was extensive use of machine-paced work. This took the timing and pace of work out of the hands of the worker and gave rise to the image of the worker as a “cog in a machine.”
(2) In order to achieve high-speed output, highly specialized machines were constructed, so that the number of different operations performed by each machine became increasingly limited. This had the effect of reducing the amount of knowledge required by each worker, as well as the amount of training. The general process is known as “work simplification” or “job dilution,” and it presumably is distasteful to workers because of the repetitive character of the work it generates and the resultant lack of technical challenge.
(3) Successive-stage manufacture, line production, and line assembly became integral features of most industrial processes. This had as its major human consequence detachment of any given work operation from the finished product to which it contributed: men no longer saw the finished product as their own work or knew where their own work fitted into it. This presumably vitiated the sense of workmanship and pride in output.
(4) Design of machines, processes, and products, and management of production became specialized activities of engineers, technical staffs, and line managers. Technical and intricate industrial knowledge became centered in a class of elite specialists whose training and operating functions effectively foreclosed entry into this class by the vast majority of industrial workers.
The logic of machine design had its obvious consequences in men’s behavior and reactions to industrial work. Many social critics prescribed reversals of the processes just enumerated, in order to reverse their consequences. Thus, “job enlargement” was urged as a counter to “job dilution,” and “participant management” as a corrective for the growth of self-isolation of managerial elites (Argyris 1957). It is probable that none of these processes are reversible and that the social critics’ solutions will have limited and temporary success. It is certain that their solutions are irrelevant to the conditions of the second industrial revolution.
The second industrial revolution, sometimes called the “age of automation,” has implications that are truly revolutionary for the man-machine relationship. The two unique contributions of the worker to production—ability to program operations and to sense and feed back control signals— have both been incorporated in the machine complex through automation. It is now possible to program a machine to recall from an electronic memory necessary instructions for carrying out detailed and complex operations. Similarly, it is now possible to employ mechanical and electronic feedback devices which take information from an on-going process and use this to modulate and monitor the operation by feeding corrective signals back into the process. Machines can even do what man is not capable of doing because of his physiological limitations.
The fundamental feature of the second industrial revolution is thus its introduction of the great and awe-inspiring possibility that man can be substantially eliminated from the production of many goods and services. This is already a relevant problem in such an industrially advanced country as the United States. [See Automation.]
These summary descriptions of how the two industrial revolutions affect man’s relations with productive equipment establish the basis for a detailed consideration of the man-machine relationship.
Industrial discipline . The term “industrial discipline” refers, in part, to the ability of workers to adapt to the environment of work. This involves regularity of work and work habits, acceptance of legitimate authority in the work situation, responsibility for machine care and maintenance, and responsibility for achieving designated levels and quality of output. In sociological terms, industrial discipline is the acceptance of norms of industrial and commercial work by the worker.
The source of labor, when a country industrializes, must be from among people trained in and accustomed to agricultural work. The discipline of agricultural work is nature-oriented, with the rhythm of work depending on weather and season. Precision of timing in the rhythm of work distinguishes industrial employment, since interdependent jobs can be performed effectively in relation to each other only if all work stations are simultaneously filled and if the total productive process starts and stops with uniform regularity.
This problem of industrial discipline was first solved in the early English factories (and still is today, under enforced labor conditions) by making a closed community of the factory. Work was carried out in compounds, where the workers worked and lived in relative isolation from the surrounding community. Our knowledge of closed institutions suggests that this was one effective means for insuring rapid development of industrial discipline on the part of workers who had been brought up in the countryside. That it had other, and very undesirable, consequences in the total life of workers is well illustrated by the early history of British and American factory systems (Hammond & Hammond 1917, chapter 8).
Industrial discipline is particularly essential to insure the continuity of output that is possible under modern conditions of production. One of the most common obstacles to the industrialization of developing countries is the failure to inculcate adequate work discipline. Workers newly introduced to industry may not have industrial discipline sufficient to insure their daily attendance at work, their working at the appropriate time of the work cycle, and their attention to quantity and quality standards of output.
Industrial training . Industrial training is concerned with inculcating specific job operations necessary to perform individual jobs. Two basic steps are involved in developing industrial training. First, there must be accurate descriptions of job operations, so that proper content may be developed for the training. This is often accomplished through job analysis and motion study of those already proficient in the task. Second, appropriate training methods must be developed in order to inculcate required technical behavior.
The overwhelming emphasis in industrial training has been on teaching, rather than on learning. The pedagogy of industrial training has been focused on the most efficient means for inculcating a given work behavior. In industrial training a great deal of rote learning takes place, which is quite effective for industrial performance, but understanding “why” a particular thing is done on the job is minimized. Concern with teaching rather than learning has been further sustained by the cyclical character of industrial production, with frequent changes in models and styles requiring new work operations by already trained work forces. “How-to-do-it” teaching is well suited to work situations in which frequent retraining is necessary, since the worker does not have to learn and relearn basic principles governing his work.
The choice of alternatives for countries in accomplishing industrial training is simple: job training can be undertaken in an educational institution or in industry. In the United States principal dependence has been placed on training within industry, through apprenticeship programs and special on-the-job instruction; both of these methods emphasize rote learning. In various European countries and the Soviet Union, much greater reliance has been placed on the educational system; vocational training, with a “how-to-do-it” emphasis, is provided before the worker enters the labor force.
The second industrial revolution is, of course, posing a major crisis for industrial training, since substantial and continuous displacement of workers by automation requires that they be retrained. With this has come a recognition that retraining will probably follow the principles of vocational education rather than the learning theories of standard educational systems. This will, of course, shorten the retraining period and make minimum intellectual demands on the retrained workers.
Technology is a central feature of the environment of modern work and the way it is performed. Machine-paced work or the limitations on working behavior by cycles and operations of machines (whether or not machine-paced) are features that limit ivorking behavior. Furthermore, insofar as equipment is space-bound, or is involved in hazardous locations or operations, the total behavior of the worker in the workplace may be molded and limited.
It has also been pointed out that job dilution limits the range of skills and behavior required of the worker. Specialization of tasks produces limited perspectives among workers. Finally, the classical distinction between managers and workers has been hardened by the growing gulf of education and knowledge that separates these two classes.
Given these technical features of industrial work and their human consequences, we can understand two behavioral adaptations displayed by industrial and commercial workers: a marked increase in mobility between jobs and a shifting basis for calculating job satisfaction.
Where there is a free labor market and workers may voluntarily change jobs, the evidence suggests that they do this frequently in the course of a working lifetime. Data for the U.S. labor force indicate that during an average working life of 46 years, approximately nine different jobs are held. Workers in less skilled occupations change jobs more frequently than those in more skilled groups. When workers change employers, the majority also change their occupation and the industry in which they work (Palmer 1954, p. 74).
This picture of very considerable mobility in a modern, free labor market contrasts sharply with the former attachment of workers to one industry, and often the same locality and company, for their entire working life. Only among itinerant workers and journeymen (the very title is descriptive) was mobility among jobs and employing organizations characteristic. [See Labor force, article onmarkets and mobility.]
Apparently the nature of industrial employment is such that employing organizations are not committed to lifetime employment opportunities for their work forces, modern Japan being a notable exception. The individual worker usually seeks employment a number of times in the normal course of his working life.
The individual worker, then, has weakened ties to any given place of employment or any given employer. Personal needs and requirements may play a significant role, as they do in the United States labor market, in determining for whom, where, and in what industry employment will be sought (Palmer 1954, p. 73); but we can conclude in general that a major characteristic of industrial and commercial labor forces in advanced economies is the high mobility of workers between places, employing organizations, and occupations.
Studies of job satisfaction are based on the analysis of workers’ attitudes about their jobs and correlation of this with characteristics of the work they do. In general, workers who do demanding work that is interesting, challenging, and nonrepetitive express the greatest satisfaction with their work. To improve job satisfaction, the conditions of work should be made to correspond to those of the majority of highly satisfied workers (Dubin 1958, pp. 241-243).
There is no doubt of the general relationship between job satisfaction and working conditions that correlate highly with it. These working conditions do not, however, substitute for the more direct payoffs for work—money and its equivalents. Where wages are inadequate and a worker is unable to fulfill his opportunities as a consumer in the society, then his dissatisfaction with his pay will override all features of his job that might otherwise result in satisfaction. Workers in modern industrial society do not make a living; they make money and buy a living.
Alienation from work . Mobility in the labor force has various economic and social consequences. Economically, if the industrial complex is to be progressive, with flexibility in locating new plants and introducing new products and production methods, then mobility in the labor force will be functional in achieving these goals. This is because labor mobility permits ease of recruitment into new industrial sectors and ready movement out of obsolescent industries.
At the social level, however, the consequence of high labor mobility may be to contribute significantly to alienation from work itself. This supplements the features of technology and its human consequences that influence the diminishing importance of work to workers. At some point in industrial development, work ceases to be a central life interest of industrial and commercial workers, and becomes instrumental in “buying a living.”
Worker alienation from work, however, does not mean alienation from the society in general. Indeed, detachment from work as a central life interest is likely to be accompanied by attachment to other sectors of social life. Studies of labor and leisure, for example, suggest that American workers are now in a transitional stage as they move toward attachment to sectors of social life other than work (Wilensky 1960). Part of the unevenness in this transition results from cultural lag in the social system in developing viable substitutes for work as a central life interest. A contemporary preoccupation with spectator amusements such as mass sports and television watching (characteristic of American, but also of European and Soviet workers, along with the indigenous Continental practices of communal coffee, wine, beer, and vodka drinking as collective leisure-time activities) may be only initial adjustments to a new era of substantial freedom from work. It may be that new social practices will develop to replace work as a central life interest.
From the standpoint of opportunities and opportunity costs, it appears that the modern worker is finding alternative opportunities (within the limits of time available and social accessibility) for spending his life outside the work environment, and finding also that the cost of entering these nonwork areas is not prohibitive. Proceeds from working— wages and fringe benefits—together with welfare benefits derived from the state and employing organization, usually provide the wherewithal to take advantage of living opportunities outside the realm of work. Thus disengagement from work as a central life interest is possible for the first time for the mass of citizens in economically advanced countries. The enjoyment of freedom from work, once an upper class monopoly, has become a mass opportunity. Contemporary, advanced societies are at the nascent stage in developing social means to fulfill mass opportunities for freedom from preoccupation with work.
Industrial research of the “human relations” school has emphasized that man is a social creature and that even at work his learned dependencies on social interaction must find fulfillment. The Western Electric studies confirmed that men at work would establish patterns of interaction above and beyond those necessary to get work done (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939). This was labeled the “informal” aspect of the social structure of work, and there grew up a body of personnel theory which emphasized that the design of work operations and structuring of the formal organization of management should both take into account the informal sociability of working people. Insofar as technical and formal organization of men and machines thwarted opportunities for normal informal social relations, it was argued that the technical organization of work and the formal organization of management should be modified to permit natural development of informal relations. [See Industrial relations, article onhuman relations.]
The practical application of the “human relations” philosophy involved an insistence on job enlargement to counter job dilution dictated by technical considerations; recognition that informal solidarity among workers could be constructive as well as lead to restriction of output; and the demand that two-way communication be maximized between workers and self-isolated managers. These practical personnel policies all accorded with a democratic ethos and found substantial application, first in American industry and subsequently in European industry.
There is no significant body of evidence to support the conclusion that the social structuring of work to take into account the sociability of people at work succeeded in maximizing productivity or output. Indeed, from British and American studies it appears that at best only about 15 per cent of the variability in output could be attributed to “human relations” factors. In comparative studies made where “democratic” supervision was contrasted with “autocratic” supervision, output of the compared groups was seldom significantly different; and when it was, it tended to favor autocratically led groups. The democratically led groups had more workers who expressed high job satisfaction, high regard for their supervisors, and high company loyalty (Dubin et al. 1965, chapter 1).
It now seems reasonably clear that social structuring of work, when manipulated to maximize learned patterns of sociability of workers, will positively influence what can broadly be labeled worker morale. There are no grounds for believing that productivity is influenced, except in a very minor way.
Productivity and motivation . It is possible to sum up the central point about workers in modern industrial societies by pointing to a fundamental trend: advances in productivity, measured in terms of man-hours employed, are independent of the willingness of the individual worker to invest energy, interest, and devotion in work. Once the workers have become attuned and habituated to industrial discipline, and properly trained in performance of specific work tasks, the technologies of work (with very minor assistance from the social structuring of work relations) take care of the levels of productivity achieved.
This is one of the sharply etched paradoxes of modern industrial society. Societal effectiveness in producing goods and services is independent of the willingness of individual producers. Studies have repeatedly shown the low order of relationship between individual effort and collective productivity. Indeed, it is only when workers deliberately turn their energies to hampering production, as in restriction of output for economic reasons (Mathewson 1931) or sabotage by slave labor (e.g., during World War Ii in Germany), that any influence on productivity becomes evident. On the positive side, the worker who is committed to high-level output as a personal goal (the “rate buster,” the “Stakhanovite") achieves it as an exception rather than as a rule.
This interesting conclusion is a stumbling block for social moralists and an opportunity for developing economies. Insofar as developing economies use forced methods for channeling productive energies and resources into commerce and industry, including shifting the labor force into these sectors of the economy, there seems to be some assurance that, in spite of potential lack of worker satisfaction, productivity may nonetheless increase significantly if there is adequate industrial discipline and job training. Industrialization of a country does not depend on the willingness of workers to engage themselves in industrialization.
Social history and criticism have kept pace with the changing position of the worker, both in the productive sector of society and in the society as a whole. In its contemporary expression in capitalist and socialist economies alike, the orientation toward workers is based on a philosophy of welfarism. This grew out of the shared and converging social practices of welfare capitalism and the welfare orientation of socialism.
When the worker was attached to production as a slave or serf, or through indentureship, managerial concern, if expressed at all, was for the creature comfort of the worker. This derived from the assumption that a healthy worker would be most productive. The Christian era of Western society sustained this managerial viewpoint by identifying suffering with physical pain and discomfort, and charity with their relief. The advent of the period of economic liberalism turned attention to man’s relationship to the state only insofar as freedom of enterprise was concerned. Under the doctrine of laissez-faire, the employer disdained any sense of noblesse oblige that survived from the earlier comfort-productivity formula, and pursued outright exploitation as a God-ordained right of the fit, the strong, and the able.
Marxian criticism was strongly opposed to what it saw as the employer’s “right” of exploitation; but the Marxian solution was propounded before the capitalist economy had fully developed and had brought forth the operating features of industrial welfarism. Welfare capitalism is now a dominant feature of Western economic systems, and its operating features are identical with the industrial welfarism of the socialist state.
The practices of welfare capitalism rest on the assumption that the man whose creature comforts are satisfied will return gratitude to his benefactor in the form of loyalty, including sustained working effort. Since the time of Robert Owen in England, welfare capitalism has evolved into industrial welfarism, in which creature comfort of the worker is a prime focus of attention. The same operating features of industrial welfarism are displayed in socialist countries, where creature comforts in the home and community are closely related both to type of work and to performance in the work situation.
In advanced capitalist enterprises, welfarism has reached high levels of refinement. Stemming from the testing of military conscripts in World War i, widespread programs have been developed for testing workers, in the hope that they might be selected to best fit the requirements of particular jobs. This is justified as increasing the effectiveness of performance for the employing organization and defending the hapless worker from needless failure at tasks for which he is not suited by ability, temperament, or training. Soviet industrial psychology had, by the 1960s, begun to accept testing and measuring of workers, as widely employed in capitalist economies.
A second refinement of industrial welfarism resulted from the Western Electric researches, with their emphasis on the psyche of the worker. Especially as a consequence of the counseling program developed, personnel practice turned to treating the worker as a psychological entity whose psychic woes could be ameliorated by work-centered counseling, guidance, and minor psychotherapy.
The most recent extension of the philosophy of industrial welfarism has taken the form of pleading for the individual’s opportunity to achieve “self-realization” at work. The assumption underlying this position is that the individual who realizes his inborn potentials will be both creative on the job and willingly productive.
Industrial welfarism is not directly functional in enhancing productivity and output. Such welfarism (both the capitalist and the socialist varieties) uses the place of work as the point of contact with the worker to solve some of his problems of citizenship in the larger society. In this respect the place of employment becomes the most efficient locale for remaining in continuous contact with citizens so that their problems of citizenship may be readily solved. This, of course, complements the already present disengagement of the worker from involvement in work itself as a central life interest, by providing institutional support for focusing worker interest in nonwork areas of social life.
Two important facts of modern life are that most goods and services are not produced by the people who consume them, and that money income or its equivalent (e.g., subsidies) is the common medium of exchange for securing consumer goods. Industrial and commercial workers are immersed in modern life and are fully responsive to its opportunities for consuming goods and services.
Economic demands of workers through their unions, and social provisions for guarding level and continuity of income (unemployment insurance, job retraining, social security) have combined to make money income available to them. Indeed, since the great depression of the 1930s, economically advanced countries, including the Soviet Union, have experienced a rising level of spendable income in the hands of citizens as a result of growth of the gross national product (Galbraith 1958). The majority of these citizens are workers.
The distribution systems of modern, high-output economies are important as social inventions that make workers conscious of their consumer position. Two features are notable here: modern merchandising methods and consumer credit systems.
Modern merchandising methods exploit mass markets. In order to reach such markets, goods must be widely displayed and advertised to maximize the potential number of customers. Goods are openly and broadly displayed with enticements to buy that are generally unrestricted by social class of potential consumer. Modern merchandising methods are necessarily dependent upon democratization of selling and upon mass exposure to buying opportunities.
The middle-class virtue of deferring the consumption of goods or services until their purchase price was in hand has been supplanted by a “buy-now-pay-later” consumer credit system, highly developed in the United States and spreading rapidly to other advanced countries. This credit system is founded on the assumption of continuity of income for the borrower, who can draw upon his future income, by employing credit, to purchase a complete range of goods and services. Consumers, and especially workers, are actively solicited by lenders to assume credit obligations, not only to encourage the sale of goods but also so lenders may enjoy the added profit of interest on the credit. Workers represent the largest “mass” in mass markets, and the institutional arrangement of extending credit to them facilitates their active participation as consumers.
Given, then, the wherewithal to consume beyond mere subsistence levels, together with the employment of modern merchandising methods and of a consumer credit system, it is not at all surprising that contemporary workers in advanced economies conceive of themselves as consumers as well as producers in the total society. Indeed, it is probable that the consumer self image of workers will come to dominate, and perhaps it already does in the United States (its emergence in the Soviet Union was already clear by the mid-1960s).
With a consumer self image goes an emphasis on the possession of goods and employment of services, their continual purchase, and a willingness to use a consumer credit system to make this possible. Few goods are outside the reach of workers with money and credit (indeed, credit delinquencies usually arise from over ambitious purchases), and very few services remain at the exclusive command of upper classes. The mass society gains one of its principal characteristics from the fact that it is a mass consumption society. In such a society workers constitute the major consuming segment of the populace.
When occupation, the traditional measure of class position, is employed, it appears that upward class mobility has not increased for workers. This is particularly true for the lifetime of the single worker, and intergenerational mobility shows little change over fairly long periods of time (Lipset & Bendix 1959).
It is probable that a class system measured by occupational status is only a partial reflection of reality. Life style, with all this implies for its emphasis on consumer status, may well turn out to be the more realistic measure of class position. If such a measure were applied to any considerable body of data, it is probable that both lifetime mobility and intergenerational mobility would turn out to be much higher in the contemporary world, especially among advanced nations, than in the past.
The implication of this conclusion is clear: we may reasonably infer that the present class consciousness of workers derives from their new structural position in advanced societies. Workers identify themselves as consumers rather than producers. This obviously does not fit the more traditional theories of class based on the structural position of producer in the society.
The consumer class-consciousness of workers is revealed in the self-designation of class position in opinion polls in the United States, where more than three-quarters of worker respondents (judging by occupation) call themselves middle class. A distinguishing feature of the middle class is its conspicuous consumption of goods and services. Collective bargaining demands in Western countries have increasingly centered on payoffs in services or spendable goods and services, rather than on conditions of work itself. Even in the Soviet Union, and in socialist economies generally, the promises (and their fulfillment) of more plentiful and higher-quality consumer goods for workers make sense as an appeal to their consumer class consciousness.
Two main themes have been emphasized in sketching out the social position of industrial and commercial workers: the technological bases and sociological consequences of worker disengagement from work as a central life interest and the development of a self image of consumer rather than producer in the society, but consumer of freedom from work as well as consumer of goods and services. This is a structural position in society never before occupied by workers.
There is a commonly accepted notion that industrial development requires the rise of a bourgeoisie to man technical and managerial positions. Because of its strategic position, the bourgeoisie develops a stake in the stability of industrialism itself. This must now surely be supplemented with the coordinate idea that workers play an even more important role as the major class of consumers of the plenitude that comes with industrialization, and thereby have at least as great a stake as the bourgeoisie in it.
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In the general sense of the term, there have of course been workers present since the dawn of Russian history, including slave laborers and serfs. Viewed more narrowly to mean persons employed in industry and paid a wage, however, workers became important to the Russian economy only in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, especially during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), who placed a high priority on Russia's industrial development. But even under Peter most workers employed in manufacturing and mining were unfree labor, forced to toil long hours either in privately owned enterprises or in factories owned by the government. The continued coexistence of free and forced labor at a time when forced labor, except for convicts, had virtually vanished from the European scene was a noteworthy and notorious characteristic of Russian society until as late as 1861, when serfdom was abolished and almost all labor was placed on a contractual footing.
With the abolition of serfdom, Russia began a new spurt of industrial development. In the 1890s Russian industry expanded rapidly, growing at an average rate of 8 percent per annum. The number of industrial workers, if viewed as a percentage of the overall population, was still small by the end of that decade; according to the 1897 census, the Empire's population was over 125 million, while the number of workers was roughly two million. However, their social and political importance became increasingly evident, in part because of their concentration in politically sensitive areas such as St. Petersburg (the capital), Moscow, the port city of Baku, and the industrial regions of Russian-occupied Poland.
The most dramatic manifestation of the workers' importance was their participation in strikes and demonstrations. If strike is loosely understood as any work stoppage in defiance of management, then strikes certainly took place in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but they began to be taken seriously by Russian officials, publicists, and political activists only in the 1870s and especially the 1890s. By the early twentieth century a fierce and sometimes agonizing competition had begun between radicals of various persuasions (Social-Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, etc.), liberals, religious organizations, and the government for working-class political support. In the 1905 Revolution, radicals emerged as the clear winners in this competition, though with no single faction dominating. At least in major urban industrial centers, workers played the leading role in the revolutionary struggles of that year. Their moment of greatest triumph came with the October general strike and the creation of citywide workers' councils (soviets), one of which virtually became the governing body of the city of St. Petersburg. However, the bloody suppression of the armed uprising of Moscow workers in December 1905 marked the end of the workers' triumphant period. Although labor unrest continued in 1906, workers ceased to pose a serious threat to the Russian government until the labor movement revived in the period between 1912 and 1914.
Nevertheless, the 1905 Revolution did bear some fruit for Russia's workers, including the government's recognition for the first time of their right to form unions and engage in strikes (albeit within very tight restrictions) and the right to elect their own delegates to the new Russian Parliament, the Duma (albeit under a very restricted franchise). Russian industry soon began to recover from the setbacks it had undergone in the first few years of the century, and by 1910 was again experiencing a robust expansion. As the position of workers in the labor market became more favorable, workers grew less and less tolerant of management mis-conduct and government repression. A government massacre of Russian goldminers in the spring of 1912 resuscitated the dormant labor movement and ushered in a two-year period of militant strike activity and demonstrations in many parts of Russia, most dramatically in St. Petersburg and, in 1914, Baku. Politically, this worker militancy worked to the tactical advantage of the Bolsheviks and, to a lesser extent, the Socialist Revolutionaries, while working to the disadvantage of the more moderate Mensheviks, who feared that workers' passions had been aroused to a degree that could prove counterproductive. Some historians have argued that Russian industrial centers were on the cusp of a new revolution when the onset of World War I, in the summer of 1914, put a temporary damper on worker unrest. However, it must also be acknowledged that the labor movement was dying down before war was declared.
Be that as it may, once the war began to go badly for Russia, there were growing signs of a revival of the labor movement, especially in 1916. By late February 1917, St. Petersburg workers (women textile workers as well as the traditionally militant, mainly male, metal and munitions workers) were joining with other elements of the urban population, including the military garrison, in increasingly confrontational demonstrations. Workers now played a prominent role in the overthrow of the tsarist regime and, in cooperation with the radical intelligentsia and their party activists, resurrected an updated version of the soviets of 1905, this time with the crucial participation of soldiers. Over the next few months, worker militancy in the form of strikes, street demonstrations, factory occupations, and participation in the organizations of the revolutionary parties added enormously to the difficulties of the new Provisional Government, which was simply unable to satisfy worker demands under wartime conditions. Hence when the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in October 1917 and dispersing the recently elected Constituent Assembly the following January, they would do so with a great deal of working-class support, though this support was not for Bolshevik single-party rule but for a soviet government consisting of a coalition of left parties and supportive of worker democracy within the factory. The ensuing Civil War of 1917–1921 was a period of bloodshed, hunger, and, eventually, draconian measures such as the militarization of labor and the introduction of strict one-man management, inflicted by a relentless Bolshevik regime on recalcitrant workers. Though indispensable to the Reds in their struggle against the Whites in these years of civil war, workers emerged from the war demoralized and, in many cases, thanks to the damage suffered by Russian industry, declassed. Workers now ceased to be a significant independent force in the country's political life.
See also: civil war of 1917–1922; february revolution; labor; october general strike of 1905; october revolution; revolution of 1905; social democratic party; union of struggle for the emancipation of labor
Bonnell, Victoria E. (1983). Roots of Rebellion: Workers' Politics and Organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900–14. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Haimson, Leopold H. (1964-1965). "The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905–1917." Slavic Review 23 (4): 619–642; 24 (1):1–22.
Johnson, Robert E. (1979). Peasant and Proletarian: The Working Class of Moscow in the Late Nineteenth Century. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Zelnik, Reginald E. (1971). Labor and Society in Tsarist Russia: The Factory Workers of St. Petersburg, 1855–1870. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Zelnik, Reginald E., ed. and tr. (1986). A Radical Worker in Tsarist Russia: The Autobiography of Semen Ivanovich Kanatchikov. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Zelnik, Reginald E., ed. (1999). Workers and Intelligentsia in Late Imperial Russia: Realities, Representations, Reflections. Research Series, no. 101. Berkeley: International and Area Studies, University of California.
Reginald E. Zelnik
work·er / ˈwərkər/ • n. 1. a person or animal that works, in particular: ∎ a person who does a specified type of work: a farm worker. ∎ an employee, esp. one who does manual or nonexecutive work. ∎ (workers) used in Marxist or leftist contexts to refer to the working class. ∎ a person who works in a specified way: she's a good worker. ∎ inf. a person who works hard: I got a reputation for being a worker. ∎ (in social insects such as bees, wasps, ants, and termites) a neuter or undeveloped female that is a member of what is usually the most numerous caste and does the basic work of the colony. 2. a creator or producer of a specified thing: a worker of precious metals.