Solidarity Is the Key to Advancing Class Consciousness
As we have pointed out in other articles on the US national situation - see in particular Inter 142 - American capitalism is currently besieged by a twin malady: an historic crisis of its imperialist power and an economic crisis that is becoming more and more unmanageable. The answer of the dominant class to this situation has been a head long flight into imperialist war around the globe and the continuation of the worn out monetary and fiscal tricks that have kept the economy out of a total collapse up to the present. These policies have meant for the working class a continuous deterioration of its working conditions and standard of living and a growing sense of social insecurity. Due to the retreat of the struggle of the working class amid the confusion after the collapse of "communist" Eastern bloc and the supposed "victory" of democratic capitalism, the bourgeoisie has been able to implement these policies without a serious challenge from the working class, the only force in society that has a real option to offer to the dead-end of moribund capitalism. However in the last few years there is growing evidence that we have entered a period in which the class struggle will once more be at the center stage of the social situation and the bourgeoisie's policies of austerity and war will not go on without a challenge. In order to be able to help the future struggles to bear the fruit of all their potentialities we need to make more precise our understanding of the present stage of the working class struggle.
Where is the class struggle in the US?
It is impossible to understand the present state of the working class struggle in the US without situating it in the broader context of the international struggle of the working class. Thus it is important to recall briefly the main characteristics of the current phase of these struggles. We have seen since 2003 the generalized tendency of the international working class to emerge from the reflux of consciousness and combativeness, and the general disorientation that took place after the turmoil caused by the fall of the two bloc system at the end of the eighties. This turning point of the class toward the path of confrontation against its historical enemy had one of its more remarkable moments in the great mobilization of the students in France in the spring of 2006. The struggles in Germany that took place at the same time as the mobilization in France, and since then the working class mobilizations in many other countries in the center and periphery of capitalism around the world, have confirmed that we are in a new phase of the international class struggle.
As we have pointed out throughout the press of the ICC the central characteristics of this phase of the class struggle are:
- The emergence of a new generation of workers facing for the first time its class enemy.
- The posing of the question of class solidarity both within the class as a whole and between the generations of workers.
- The recovery of the historic methods and forms of struggle of the working class. -mass assemblies, the mass strike.
- A growing consciousness of the stakes contained in the present historical situation.
The working class in the US has been totally part of this resurgence. As in other countries workers in the US have been pushed by the relentless attacks on their working and living conditions by a capitalist system mired in a permanent economic crisis, to defend themselves and leave behind the period of disorientation characteristic of the decade of the 90's. As we have pointed out in our press the high point of this trend was the three-day strike by New York City transit workers over the holiday season in December 2005. However this was not an isolated incident but rather the clearest manifestation of a tendency of the class to come back to the path of the struggle as seen in the grocery workers struggle in California in 2004 and the struggles at Boeing, North West Airlines and Philadelphia transit in 2005. This same tendency to return to the path of the struggle continued in 2006, as expressed in particular by the two-week teachers wildcat strike in Detroit in September and the walkout by more than 12,000 workers at 16 Goodyear Tire & Rubber plants in the US and Canada on October of the same year.
All these struggles have faced the same issues: the threat of draconian attacks on existing wages and benefits -direct cuts on wages, health care benefits and pensions-that would affect not only the existing work force, but future generations of workers. The combativeness of the workers involved in these battles, where the chance of winning was often lacking, has been enormous, showing the huge reservoir of energy existing in a class that has two generations of undefeated workers. Transit workers in New York City and Philadelphia and the Detroit teachers went on strike under threat of legal and financial penalties for violating laws that barred public employees from striking. Everywhere workers were willing to make huge personal sacrifices. However beyond the combativeness, what is more remarkable is the nascent development of consciousness contained in these struggles, particularly at the level of class identity and solidarity. Workers often entered the struggle knowing well that they were not only defending themselves, but the future generations of workers and the class as a whole. This was the message often repeated by workers during the New York City transit strike where the main issue of the struggle was a management proposal for a new pension tier system for future employees which included higher contributions for all new hires. This expressed an unwillingness to "sell out the unborn" and to defend the future of the new generation of workers, which was a striking expression of the developing solidarity and growing consciousness in the class.
On the downside, despite the enormous combativeness and the growing class consciousness shown by the workers involved in them, there have been enormous weaknesses on these movements. In every case the dominant class managed to keep the struggle under the control of the unions, which managed to isolate the workers in struggle from their class brothers facing the same barrage of attacks on salaries and social benefits. Even during strikes like the one of the Transit Workers in NYC where there was tremendous sympathy from the local working class and spontaneous expressions of solidarity were often witnessed, the union bureaucracy managed to keep other workers from getting involved in the struggle and limited "solidarity to posturing declarations by the unions. This control by the union apparatus in the present struggles, given the retreat in class consciousness that occurred during the decade of the 90's, is not surprising and workers will have to regain the lessons of their past struggles in order to confront these institutions of the bourgeois State. It will be in this confrontation that workers can find again their own methods of organization and struggle -mass assemblies, workers' control committees, mass strike -- that are still missing from the nascent movement in the US.
However, despite the weaknesses of the present movement the bourgeoisie has not failed to see its potentialities. After each struggle, it has campaigned to send the message that the more important lesson of these strikes is that the "struggle does not pay". And in most cases workers have come back to work with a pile of give-backs eroding salaries, benefits and working conditions that the unions have rammed down their throats after long and draining strikes. However for the working class as a whole the importance of a strike is not measured by winning or losing its immediate demands, but by the contribution at the level of organization and consciousness that it provides for the movement as a whole in its confrontation with the class enemy, and this is the main reason why the bourgeoisie puts so much effort into discouraging other workers from entering the struggle. In NYC, where the bourgeoisie has tried so hard to drive home the message that the "struggle does not pay" by punishing the striking transit workers, the city unions and the mayor have avoided the risk of any other municipal workers' struggle by settling contract negotiations ahead of schedule and without the kind of draconian attacks that provoked the transit strike. On a national scale the present rush of bourgeois proposals aimed at resolving the health care crisis is also very much influenced by the present struggles -each of which has involved attacks on health benefits. This campaign -all 12 pre-presidential candidates have a "plan" to resolve it --is very much directed at eliminating the health care issue from the terrain of the struggle, making of it one more issue for the bourgeoisie to decide through the electoral circus.
Amid a world falling apart, increasingly ravaged by the barbarism of war, worsening economic crisis, political instability, the spread of lethal diseases and the growing degradation of the environment, the historical responsibility of the world working class is immense. The future of humanity and without exaggeration the very survival of the human species and life on the planet are at stake. Either the working class will raise its struggle to the level necessary to put an end to this moribund system or capitalism will take to its tomb the very bases for building a world-wide human community, free of the exploitation of man by man, social classes and national states, and in which the human species can live in a more harmonic relationship with its environment.
The present reawakening of the international working class struggle contains the potentiality of that new world and revolutionaries have enormous responsibilities to help their class make possible this perspective.
Eduardo S, July 8th 2007.