Unions and marketing: commodity fetishism and American labor

As I pondered the theme for this month’s issue of the Chaparral – marketing – I simply could not escape how our current consumer culture, based on the use of mass marketing campaigns, serves to isolate and alienate workers and the labor movement from American society. When I teach the 2nd half of the United States history survey course, I find that students simply have no connection to unions or the labor movement. In fact, that ambivalence is present among my friends, and even among many of my colleagues here at GCC. Why is it that the most essential method for workers to advocate for basic rights in the workplace remains so far outside the consciousness of most Americans?

The reasons become apparent once we understand how a key concept from Marx’s book Capital can be applied to the current plight of unions, in general, and teachers unions in particular. That concept is commodity fetishism. This brief discussion will, of necessity, simplify Marx’s rich and complex analysis of the relation among labor, production and commodities. But by extracting some core principles, it is possible to begin unraveling the mystery of the “disappearing worker” in the American mind.

The theory of commodity fetishism starts with the creation of value through labor. The reason a pair of boots is worth more than the total of the raw materials is that, through labor, value is created. Twenty-five dollars of raw materials, plus the amortized value of tools and rent, never add up to the $125 that is paid for that pair of boots. The $100 difference is not the creation of some metaphysical marketplace. That value is created by the worker who, through their labor, transforms those raw materials into an item that has real use value. This labor added value is the essential first step in understanding commodity fetishism.

When you buy that pair of boots, however, all you see is the $125 price tag. In your mind, the boots are worth $125, and you simply accept that fact. You never really consider the labor that went into making the boots. You don’t even reflect upon the manufacturing process necessary to make the boots. You simply accept that boots cost that amount of money. You accept this without ever really seeing that people worked to make the boots, and it is their skill and expertise that transformed a pile of materials into an item that has real use value for you. 

In the end, this means that labor becomes separated from the object of that labor. The worker is dropped from the calculus of our spending in a market economy. We look at items and see a value that is devoid of any human component. For the worker this means that their labor is ignored — the actual work they performed to create the commodities we consume every day — disappears. And so, if the labor disappears, so does the laborer.

The last component in the theory of commodity fetishism is the alienation of the worker. The entire system of production and exchange operates to nullify what workers do every day of their life. It makes each and every day a meaningless expense of calories, with no intrinsic value. The world of consumers never see their invisible laborer and so the worker disappears as an essential part of the marketplace. We simply toil each and every day without understanding that it is our work that makes the entire economy possible.

The separation of worker from value – the central feature of commodity fetishism – results in a devaluation of labor unions in society. If a worker doesn’t actually do anything, then why should we see the labor unions as anything more than a self-serving organizations of individuals who want to gain something from the economy. Each demand from a union is an attack upon the marketplace since we never really appreciate that it is their work that has created everything we have and use in that marketplace. Unions simply make unreasonable demands that undercut the “profits” necessary for businesses to succeed. The entire history of unionism in the United States has run headlong into the wall of commodity fetishism which prevents all of us from understanding how the labor of workers makes our entire world possible.

These principles of commodity fetishism were developed as the world embarked on what we now call the Second Industrial Revolution. At this point it was easy to see the relationship of labor, production, and commodity. Workers toiling to make the Model T are never appreciated for the wondrous car they made. But how does this key concept of industrial production relate to our world of education and the Glendale College Guild.

The answer is clearer than you might at first assume. 

The truth is, our work as educators in the State of California is framed within the same dynamics of industrial production. When we look at the actions of the State legislators toward public education, we see lawmakers who seek to apply a business model to our school system. Students have literally become commodities where standardized tests in K-12 and “benchmarks of success” in the new funding formula for Community Colleges define value of our student product. The State “invests” monies to manufacture a commodity (a successful student), and they seek to measure, to quantify, the results of that manufacturing process (education).

Educators have become analogous to the factory worker. We labor every day to manufacture successful students (with success being defined in the current funding formula), but the work we do is separated from the actual value we create in those students. Just like the bootmaker, we are alienated from the product of our labor. And not only do we feel this disconnect, the broader community does not see the value that our labor has created. There is little consideration for the ongoing efforts we make to ensure more effective learning environments, or the pains made to improve our classrooms and methods of instruction. For the outside world our labor is disassociated from the measures of success created by the State.

In the end, this means that our Guild is viewed as an obstacle to “education.” Each and every time your union fights for better working conditions or higher wages, we are viewed as self-centered. Any demand we make is portrayed as a rejection of our commitment to education. How can we possibly care for our students if we are willing to pressure the District for a salary increase? We are simply self-serving hypocrites. 

What we all need to embrace is that our union operates to insure that we, as educators, are compensated for the value we create. We must all grasp onto the fact that our labor creates value beyond the measures imposed by the State. We must stop feeling overwhelmed – for this is a key aspect of alienation – and instead embrace that it is our work that is the essential feature of a successful Glendale College. We must stay focused on showing the community we live in that our work creates value. Let us refuse to be alienated. 

In unity.

Roger Bowerman

President, Glendale College Guild

P.S. When I shared this article with my fiancé who was raised in the Soviet Union, she stated that I was a better Marxist than she was.