The Working Class in the US Returns to the Path of the Class Struggle
Clearly the proletariat in the U.S. is completely inscribed in the same generalized return to struggle that has been occurring on the international level since 2003, as the world working class struggles to emerge from the disorientation, confusion and reflux in consciousness that ensued after the fall of the two bloc system at the end of the 1980s, which was so deep and so profound that in many ways the proletariat, while not defeated in the historic sense, experienced great difficulty in even recognizing is own identity as a class and in having confidence in itself as a class with the capacity to defend itself.
As we have noted on the Web site and in the press, the dramatic high point of this trend was the New York City transit strike in December, but it is important to stress that this struggle was not a sudden development but rather the fruit of an ongoing tendency to retake the struggle as seen in the grocery workers struggle in California, the struggles at Boeing and North West Airlines, Philadelphia transit, and the graduate assistants strike at New York University. As in other countries, workers in the U.S. have been pushed by the seriousness of the global economic crisis and consequent escalation of attacks by the ruling class on their standard of living to defend themselves as shake off the effects of the period of disorientation. The primary task posed by these nascent struggles in many countries was not the extension of struggles across geographic and industrial sector lines, but the reacquisition of consciousness at the most basic levels, of class self identity and solidarity.
The return to struggle in the U.S. occurs within a social situation increasingly free of illusions. Gone is the sense of a false reality that characterized at least part of the Clinton years, with promises of unending growth, the Internet bubble, the soaring stock market. Today there is a generalized sense that the future is not rosy, that things are not going right, there is nothing to brag about in the economy, no cause for optimism – no alternative but to struggle, to fight against the escalating austerity attacks on the standard of living. Coupled with the fact that there are today two generations of undefeated workers in the proletariat also favors the development of class struggle.
There is a qualitative aspect to the current return to struggle that is significantly different from previous experiences since the onset of the global crisis in the 1960s. Yes, there is anger, even rage, about austerity attacks, particularly in regard to cuts in pensions and medical benefits, which is in fact a drastic cut in the compensation or wages of the workers. But the struggles that are emerging today are not driven by blind anger or unthinking combativeness, as they were more likely to be in the late 60s or the 70s. Today workers are returning to the struggle with a great consciousness of what is at stake and what has to be done. A strike today means risky replacement by scabs, it risks the threat of company bankruptcy and the permanent disappearance of jobs, it risks trading increasing difficulty to support one’s family, for absolute disaster. In the case of the transit workers, their strike was illegal, with the loss of wages not only for everyday they were on strike, but also a penalty of two additional days’ pay for every strike day—in other words for a three-day strike, they lost nine days pay. In addition they faced the threat of a $25,000 fine for the first day of the strike, which would double each day – thus for the three-day strike, the court could have imposed a fine of $175,000 on each individual striker!
Conscious of all these risks, dangers, and penalties, workers have struck, because they increasingly understand the necessity to fight and that they are not just fighting for themselves but their class. This reclamation of class self identity and the closely linked revival of class solidarity are perhaps the most important legacies of the transit strike. We can see it in many manifestations, in the statement of the bus driver who told one of our comrades, “It was good that we stood up for the working class.” We can see it in the tremendous sympathy for the strike throughout the working class in NYC during the strike, even though the strike inconvenienced many workers. Workers everywhere talked about the need to stand up for the erosion of pensions, against the imposition of two-tier systems that would penalize new workers. It could be seen in the voice of the older African American worker who was seen on television denouncing Mayor Bloomberg for branding the strikers “thugs.” “If they’re thugs, then I’m a thug, too,” she said. It was seen as well in the tendency for other workers to refuse to leave the strikers isolated and alone, but the desire to demonstrate their support and solidarity. Other workers visited the picket lines, to march with workers, to bring food and hot coffee in the extreme cold weather, to talk to the strikers – and they were welcomed wholeheartedly by the strikers. In one case, several teachers brought their classes to visit the workers and offer support. The transit strikers knew they were not alone, that they were not isolated, and it was because their struggle confronted exactly the same problems and conditions that the rest of the class confronts.
During the 3rd wave of class struggle we used to argue that real solidarity meant joining the struggle, spreading the struggle to other sectors, having other sectors joining the strike, integrating their own demands, etc. This type of generalization, and spreading and politicization of struggles is absolutely necessary and integral to the revolutionary process, but perhaps the present manifestations of solidarity emanating from the proletariat itself shows how much deeper, and even more elementally human solidarity can be in the working class. During the waves of class struggle that occurred in the 70s, there was often a simultaneity of struggle, but not necessarily any significant sense of solidarity between the workers in struggle at the same time. Today, as workers turn to struggle with an increasing consciousness of the importance and difficulties of their struggles, a re-emerging sense of class self-identity, and a profound need for solidarity, the situation is qualitatively different. While the struggle ahead will be exceedingly difficult, there is room for optimism about the perspectives for class struggle, and a growing responsibilities for the intervention of revolutionary minorities in the class struggle.
Internationalism, July '06.