Behold! The Urban Miner

State minimum wage rules for all urban miners, now!
Note: The following was written in 1994 by John Imani, an organic intellectual genius, community member, and revolutionary from Los Angeles.
Below you will find an analysis of one of the workers of the informal economy–booted out of the ‘real’ economy (in the second circuuit, Production)–as capitalism can no longer use all of us as workers, i.e. the output of production outstrips the increase in population, more is produced with fewer workers.  The expelled, the exo-industrial, workers form ‘the reserve army of labor’.
These workers are called “scavengers”, “bums”, “dumpster divers” and worse.
And yet these workers cannot be fired.  They set their own hours and write their own checks .   We must recognize these workers as part of us.  We must salute these comrades who do this distasteful and dirty work that benefits us all through recycling. We must recognize and defend these workers and all workers in the ‘informal’ economy who are trying to scratch out a living, in this case, by ‘mining’ recyclables from our trash.
This paper was originally written in 1994 and there is nothing in it that I would change save that I would have added a call for state minimum wage rules being applied to this sector.  The industry itself is a product of the state with its imposition of the CRV.
Behold!  The Urban Miner:


 “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”[1]

Urban Miner Mr Joseph Kemp, 84, Los Angeles, CA

Three o’clock in the morning and the protesting squeal of unsteady metal wheels overcoming friction, gravity and a thousand miles of heavy usage grows louder and then slows to a stop.  This is followed by the squish of plastic bags being lifted, poked, probed and opened.  There is the clank of metal and the clash of glass.  After a pause…the by-now familiar sound of the bags as they are returned to their former environs.  Then the plaintive rattle of the wheels again picks up its solitary refrain and fades on into the night.  It is Tuesday.  Trash pick-up day.  Asleep before the chickens and now awaking the rooster up, an Urban Miner is at work.

“The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil…were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds…The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their  enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers.”[2]

He punches no clock but is obedient to the timepiece of necessity.  His stem is wound tight by the dicta of the pitiable piece-work wage he is paid.  He goes off to no factory, no shop, no store. Neither does he work at home.  His ‘office’ is the not-so-great-outdoors which if he is ‘successful’, that is if he is to continue to scratch out a living, he will navigate with both the wary skill of a frontier scout and the fears and dread of a gold-rush prospector who is down to his last biscuit, his last can of beans and winter acoming on.

He belongs to no concern and is of no concern to any corporation or company which would be obligated to, at the least, pay him the prevailing sub-subsistence minimum wage; which would be mandated to pay him for legal holidays, vacation days, sick days; which would be required to compensate him should he be injured while doing this dirty, dangerous job; and, which would have to provide the pathetic pittance of the unemployment dole when he is ‘pink-slipped’ by his own productivity and his services no longer needed.  He is naked.  Exposed to and the victim of both the elements and an economic system whose coat-of-arms hails the virtue of man’s inhumanity to man.  This ‘proletarian vagabond’ is at once the nightmarish avatar of the working class’ painful birth and, perhaps, the ominous harbinger of its dismal future.  Working classes are thus like sausages in that their makings are best left unseen.

“The expropriation and expulsion of the agricultural population…supplied…the town industries with a mass of proletarians…In spite of the smaller number of its cultivators,  the soil brought forth as much or more produce, after as before, because the  revolution in the conditions of landed property was accompanied by improved methods of culture,…concentration of the means of production and because the agricultural wage laborers (were) put on the strain more intensely…[3]

The closing of the demesne, a process expedited by the simultaneous increase in the productivity and diversity of agriculture and the consequent increase in population[4] alongside the rise of manufacture which demanded more and more wool from ‘sheep-walks’ that once were piece-work cottages and subsistence farms transformed the newly ‘freed’ peasants into wage laborers and in doing so created a market for the products of such labor.  Another now produced that which the worker had formerly produced for himself; that which he formerly owned was now the property of that other which, if desired, had to be bought.  As manufacture grew not only in size but also in concentration, so was the newly born work force forced to transform itself from a proud rural diaspora into a debauched urban aggregation which bided its time with beggary, thievery and prostitution whilst fearfully huddled outside the doors of the factory hoping to be invited in.

As the increase in the productivity of agriculture ‘freed’ the property-less to go bravely into the new world of manufacture so now do mechanization, automation and computerization ‘free’ more and more of modern industry’s workers.  These workers have, to the greater extent been absorbed, albeit at generally lower wages by a service sector that has, until now, expanded geometrically, in inverse proportion to industry’s linear contraction as per cent of the nation’s workforce.

Number (in millions) of workers employed in the United States

       YEAR 1932 1945 1950 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990
      Agricul 10.2 8.6 7.2 3.5 3.4 3.4 3.2 3.2
      Goods 8.6 17.5 18.5 23.6 22.6 25.7 24.9 25.0
      Service 15.0 22.9 36.7 47.3 54.3 64.7 72.7 85.0

Source:  1992 Information Please Almanac.  Houghton Miflin.  Boston.  p59.

“…job creation has been anemic and the layoffs continue…Even prosperous firms are reducing staff. Fleet Financial Group, the 14th largest U.S. banking company is cutting 5500 employees or 19% of its workforce.  The bank says it needs ‘to be competitive,’ but not so much with other banks as with machines and toll-free numbers that now perform traditional functions of banking.

“This is technological unemployment comparable to that of the late 19th Century, when railroads and emerging industry created the modern corporation and transformed a work force then heavy with domestic servants and farm laborers.”[5] The service sector’s tremendous annual expansion rate of 3 per cent from 1975-1990 is predicted to drop to 1.6 per cent between the years 1990-2005.[6]  What is happening is naught but that which as occurred in agriculture and manufacturing: ‘productivity’ rears its head.  Laser bar codes have rendered obsolete the 10-key skills of the grocery clerk.  He is but a mere appendage whose job description consists of a motion of his arm and a mechanical “Hi!  How are you?”  The ATM endangers the very existence of the bank teller who eyes with suspicion the pending extinction of that rarest of service sector birds, the filling station attendant who is falling victim to pay-at-the pump self service.

This overblown giant, numbers in its ranks not only the above along with health care, municipal and education workers but also swells its ranks with stock brokers, insurance agents, advertising touts and lawyers, in short, blackguards of all ilk and stripes.  Service capital now emulates its predecessors and begins to grow leaner, meaner and trimmer. The era of ‘downsizing’ has dawned, or rather, has begun to set the sun on this sector’s day.

 “HMO’s tend to keep physician staffing to a minimum, employing one physician for every 800 enrolees (compared with a ratio of about 1:400 in traditional fee-for-service practices).  The Kaiser Permanente Foundation Health Plan is one of the most respected HMOs in the country.  But following industry trends, it is dramatically increasing physicians’ case loads.  For example, in the Sacramento region Kaiser is…increasing the ratio up to 2700 patients per doctor.” [7]

But growth in this sector has leveled off not only because of the increase in ‘productivity’ of its workers due to the modernization of equipment but also because of this sector’s very own derivative nature.  A substantial portion of the amount available to be spent upon service is a direct function of the industrial workers declining purchasing power.[8]  If the service sector can no longer absorb the worker who no longer ‘belongs’ to industry and who no longer ‘belongs’ to the land then where is he going to go?  What is he to do?

“Though a use-value, in the form of a product, issues from the labour-process, yet other use values, products of previous labour, enter into it as a means of production. The same use-value is both the product of a previous process, and a means ofproduction in a later process…

“Whenever therefore a product enters as a means of production into a new labour-process, it thereby loses its character of product, and becomes a mere factor in the process…the fact that (it is a) product of previous labour is a matter of utter  indifference…”[9]

There is a painting, “The Gleaners”, by Jean-Francois Millet.  The picture shows peasants pouring over the remains of a grain harvest.  Though there is no text to accompany, it is clear that the ‘gleaners’ are engaged in ‘scavenging’.  What is left of the harvest is not worth the wage that the owner would have to have paid hired help to salvage.  The ‘gleaners’, by definition, would produce no surplus value and would produce, really reproduce if fortunate or industrious enough, only themselves.  As with the past, so with today.  However, this modern farcical recapitulation of yester-year’s tragedy, the ‘Urban Miner’, does produce surplus value.  He is not a ‘gleaner’ but is an exo-industrial worker.  He is not a ‘scavenger, he is a (secondary) ore producer.  He does not forage at the point of production for ‘leavings’ that have no economic value but ‘mines’ at the point of consumption.  The fact that he produces a product which has lost its character as a use-value and is transformed through his labor into a means of production, itself means that he is a factor in the labor process, itself means that he is truly a worker.  Further, the labor he performs is socially beneficial in marked contradistinction to that of the stock-brokers, etc., who despite their aristocratic salaries are naught but the true scavengers, are naught but vultures and vampires who prey upon the corpse of congealed dead labor.

The Urban Miner is the new proletarian, the exo-industrial proletarian, the proletarian vagabond who has been ‘freed’ from the company, ‘freed’ from the job, from the clock and from the boss; but, simultaneously, he has been ‘freed’ from the benefits and protections of a ‘civilized’ society.  He is the product of capitalism turned full circle and is its chicken come home to roost. Capitalism, piece-work at its beginning and piece-work at its end.

“Markets are fragmenting, both in size and in time.  Product cycles have grown shorter, making total production runs smaller…The age of mass consumption may be drawing to a close; if it does, the age of mass production must end too.[10]

The Urban Miner is not alone in this class of exo-industrial workers.  This piece-worker is joined by a rising number of neo-day laborers who are being ‘freed’ at an ever increasing pace:  The street-corner contract laborer, the ‘walking man’ who places advertisements door-to-door, day maids and even the aristocrat of the class, the temporary office worker.  All are joined by the sharing of two distinctive features of this surplus labor pool:  First, they ‘belong’ to no company and hence, for the first time since the age of hunting, fishing and gathering, present us with workers who are truly free (though not from the pangs of necessity but) from the lash of the slave-master, the fiat of the lord and the order of the boss); secondly, because of the very nature of this freedom, the exo-industrial proletarian represents a subversion of the minimum wage[11]; in the case of the ‘temp’, an erosion in the ‘benefits’ portion of the surplus value extracted from labor; and, this type of ‘freed’ labor exerts downward pressure on the wages of workers engaged in similar pursuits (e.g. primary ore  mining).[12]  Finally, through the sheer inevitable increase in the numbers of workers who will continue to be ‘freed’ from the industrial and service sectors of the economy, the competition for ‘real’ jobs will impact negatively upon the general wage rates of all.

The Urban Miner is a proletarian whose interest lies not in the preservation of his job.  This is a worker who wants to destroy the conditions of his employment.  This is a member of a class whose interest is best served by its own negation.  He is a worker whose existence was called into being and thus is subject to negation by the elimination of two necessities:  His need to eat and the need to conserve natural resources.  The former negation will be accomplished by his integration into ‘real’ production (i.e. the re-organization of industry for production of product and not of profit; the latter, through bio-degradable packaging and consumer education.  It is to the self-interest of all workers to recognize and protect this exo-industrial proletarian for as Marx saw the vagabonds of the 15th and 16th centuries as the ‘fathers of the present working class’ so does the gaunt visage of the Urban Miner while staring us in our faces ghost-like shimmers in our mirror.


[1] Marx:  Communist Manifesto as quoted in  Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto by D. A. Drennan.

Barron’s Educational Series.  Woodbury, NY.  1972.  pp 149-150.

[2] Marx:  Capital.  International Publishers.  New York. 1973. Chap XXVIII.  p 734.

[3] Marx:  Ibid. Chap XXX.  p 745.

[4] Yole, Cahill, et al:  Exploring Our World-Eastern Hemisphere.  Follett Social Studies.   California State  Department of Education.  Sacramento.  1978.  pp149-152.

[5]James Flanagan:  Today’s Top Job is Preparing for Employment Tomorrow.  Los Angeles Times.  March 13, 1994.  pD-1.

In an excellent, if overly optimistic article, Mr Flanagan analyses the effects of technological change upon the work force.

[6] Source:  Statistical Abstract of the U.S.  U.S. Dept. of Commerce.  1993.  Table 648.

[7] Gordon and Shindul-Rothschild:  The Managed Care Scheme.  The Nation.  May 16, 1994.  p660.

[8] See, for example, Keigman and Lawrence:  Trade, Jobs and Wages.  Scientific American.  April, 1994.  p44.  An excellent debunking of the myth that foreign competition is responsible for the wage woes of American workers.

[9] Marx:  Ibid.  pp181-182.

[10] Oliver Morton:  A Survey of Manufacturing Technology.  The Economist.  March 5, 1994.  pp3-4 (Insert).

[11] Aluminum cans are paid at the rate of $.90/lb.  There being 27 12oz cans/lb. means that the Urban Miner must mine 135 cans per hr to make close to the minimum wage.  An almost impossible task.  Source:  ARC Recycling Centers, Los Angeles, CA.  Quoted May, 1994.

[12] In 1992, 38% of all aluminum used in the United States was recycled.  As recently as 1980 only 16.7% was recycled.  Source: 1993 Statistical Abstract.  Table 373.

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