The Class Struggle in the US
There are so many things that are going wrong in today's world -- wars without end that are killing and displacing millions around the world; health epidemics that condemn millions to early deaths and suffering; famines; homelessness; degradation of the environment that is menace the future of all life on earth; growing pauperization of the working masses of the world.... the list could go on and on. And there is no safe haven.
The metropoles of capitalism and the ever underachieving undeveloped countries, where the majority of the world population lives, are all in the same sinking boat. The talking-heads for capitalism have a thousand-and-one reasons for this situation, none of which is close to the truth. The fact is that in four decades of open economic crisis capitalism has driven the whole of humanity to the edge of a precipice. Society, instead of being in control of its own destiny, seems to be more and more the helpless victim of ruthless social, economic and natural forces that appear to have a life of their own. Left to its own devices decadent capitalism will in the end destroy humanity.
It is against this dramatic background that the international struggle of the working class, the only force in present society that can offer an alternative to capitalism's madness, takes on all its historic importance. It is in this context that we have to situate our balance of the present stage of the working class struggle.
An international upsurge of class struggle
Ever since the first signs of the return of the open
economic crisis of capitalism 40 years ago, the world working class put the
bourgeoisie on notice about its
undiminished historic importance, belying
the modernist propaganda about the disappearance of the proletariat. Once
again the historic class confrontation between the bourgeoisie, representative
of decadent capitalism, and the proletariat, its potential gravedigger, came to
the center of the social situation.
Through successive international waves of struggles, starting with the
great mobilization of workers and students in France in 1968, and up to the
late 1980's, the world proletariat confronted in the class struggle
capitalism's attempts to make workers bear the brunt of its deepening economic
crisis. Many hard lessons about the
working class methods of struggle, the bourgeois nature of the unions, and the
traps of bourgeois democracy were learned in these struggles. This dynamic came to an end with the sudden
collapse of Stalinism at the end of 1989 and beginning of the 1990's.
The world bourgeoisie used this collapse to convince workers about the futility of hoping for a different world beyond profit driven capitalism. Thanks to years in which the working class had been made to believe that Stalinism=communism, this campaign delivered a setback both at the level of combativeness and consciousness in the workers ,sending the class struggle into a deep reflux for most of the decade of the 90's.
As we have pointed out in the press of the ICC, in the last few years this reflux has come to an end. At the international level, in the last five years, there has been an upsurge of the class struggle by the world proletariat involving all sectors in the developed and underdeveloped countries of capitalism. Combativeness and, above all, consciousness are once again in the rise in the class.
What are the general characteristics of this phase of the class struggle?
As highlighted in the resolution on the international situation adopted by the ICC's 17th Congress in May 2007 and confirmed by numerous recent struggles throughout the world the general characteristics of these recent class struggles are:
"...they are more and more incorporating the question of solidarity. This is vitally important because it constitutes par excellence the antidote to the "every man for himself" attitude typical of social decomposition, and above all because it is at the heart of the world proletariat's capacity not only to develop its present struggles but also to overthrow capitalism."
The struggles express a disillusionment in the future that capitalism offers us: "nearly four decades of open crisis and attacks on working class living conditions, notably the rise of unemployment and precarious work, have swept aside illusions that ‘tomorrow things will be better': the older generations of workers as well as the new ones are much more conscious of the fact that ‘tomorrow things will be even worse.'"
"Today it is not the possibility of revolution which is the main food for the process of reflection but, in view of the catastrophic perspectives which capitalism has in store for us, its necessity.''
"In 1968, the movement of the students and the movement of the workers, while succeeding each other in time, and while they had sympathy for each other, expressed two different realities with regard to capitalism's entry into its open crisis: for the students, a revolt of the intellectual petty bourgeoisie faced with the perspective of a deterioration of its status in society; for the workers, an economic struggle against the beginning of the degradation of their living standards. In 2006, the movement of the students was a movement of the working class."
True, many of the present struggles are still taking place under the suffocating stronghold of the unions and are often derailed into dead-ends, but as shown during the students struggle in France in spring of 2006, there is also an incipient tendency for the class to struggle to use its own methods, taking control collectively of its own movement. This was the sense of the mass assemblies, open to the participation of all members of the class, that took place during the student movements in France in Spring 2006 and autumn 2007, and also during the struggle of metal workers at Vigo Spain in May 2006.
Where is the working class struggle in the US?
Workers in the US, faced with tremendous attacks on their working and living conditions by capitalism's deepening economic crisis, have also returned to the path of the struggle, leaving behind the period of disorientation that characterized the 1990's. As we have shown in our press the working class in this country has been a full participant in the present upsurge on the international class struggle, showing both the strengths and weaknesses of this movement.
In the December holiday season of 2005 over 34, 000 NYC transit workers --subway and buses- went on strike effectively paralyzing New York City for 3 days. For the bourgeoisie this movement was the illegal act of selfish vandals - in ‘democratic' America most public workers cannot legally strike. For the working class this was the clear beginning of a new moment in the confrontation with capital. This movement had at its heart the same question of solidarity that we have seen in many other struggles throughout the world. Workers refused to be accomplices in the attempt of the State to create a new pension tier affecting future new hires, to sell out the ‘unborn" as the main slogan of the movement said. This solidarity with the new workers generation, an expression of a growing consciousness of class identity, was echoed by the enormous sympathy expressed by working population of the city with the struggle, despite the attempts of the city officials to turn the population against the striking workers.
However the transit workers strike 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 workers 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.
In the last few months of 2007, as we detailed in the last issue of Internationalism, there were a number of simultaneous strikes and struggles, a phenomenon we haven't seen in quite a while. This included a number of official union strikes, such as the strike in New York City by mini-bus drivers who transport people with disabilities, Broadway theater stagehands, and film and TV writers, and an unofficial strike by young "free-lance" workers a MTV in New York. This latter group, many in their 20's and 30's, non-unionized, leading a precarious worklife as more or less permanent temporary workers with little or no health care benefits and relatively low wages, echoed the struggles of the French student movement against the CPE in 2006 in their attempts to self organize, use innovative methods to communicate, including the use of e-mail and websites, and organize street demonstrators. Their slogan "there are too many of us to ignore" reflected a recognition of the need for solidarity and the maxim that in unity there is strength.
More recently there have been two other major strikes in the auto industry involving several thousand workers in a number of states in which workers have shown enormous courage, but which seemed to be under total control of the UAW union honchos. In February 1 2,600 workers at Volvo Trucks North America in Dublin, Virginia, went on strike after the company refused to renew the current contract, presumably in an attempt to force its workers to accept the ‘industry standards' of cutbacks set by the ‘big three' automakers in last year's contract negotiations and union-controlled strikes at GM and Chrysler. February 25, 3,600 workers went on strike at American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc. American Axle has five plants in Michigan and New York that produce parts for GM and others automakers. American Axe is demanding wage reductions of up to $14 an hour, as well as elimination of future retiree and pension benefits. Already in 2004 the UAW agreed to lower the wages for starting workers at American Axle after a one-day strike. A union boss at this company in an amazing confession of the bourgeois nature of these organizations said: "the UAW has a proven record of working with companies to improve their competitive position and secure jobs." No comment necessary.
The bourgeoise is not resting on its laurels
The dominant class has been able to respond to the present upsurge of the class struggle at different levels. After their initial surprise at the time of the NYC transit strike, the bourgeoisie's main focus has been to derail any efforts by the working class in drawing the real lessons of this movement. Thus the main strengths of the strike, the combativeness of these workers that went in strike in defiance of bourgeois legality, their class consciousness and deep sense of solidarity with their class brothers, were turned into a "defeated" strike that ended with workers accepting a worse deal -an across the board establishment of health insurance contributions- than the main reason of the movement --a new more precarious pension system for future workers.- The fallacy of this conclusion is that after the transit strike the local bourgeoisie recognized that its attempt to use the transit workers to set a bargaining pattern had failed and took the proposal for the same new pension system off the table in negotiations with other city workers. Furthermore in an attempt to avoid any contagion from the transit strike to other city workers upcoming contracts were negotiated with unusual speed and without the usual cutbacks.
Another central weapon of the bourgeoisie against the present upsurge of the class struggle has been the use of the democratic mystification, the myth that workers can influence at the ballot box their present fate and the future of society. For nearly three years now, there has been a barrage of intensive political campaigns whipped up by the media (see the article on the election campaign elsewhere in this issue Although it is difficult to quantify, there is no denying that this electoral campaigns have had a negative effect in the working class, particularly at the level of strengthening the democratic mystification. In particular the Obama campaign has been able to draw a lot of attention from the young generation of workers, who are so important to the future of the class struggle. What is clear is that despite this toxic effect of bourgeois electoral campaigns, workers have still been struggling on their own terrain as shown by the mobilizations that we described above.
Also with the excuse of the ‘terrorist' boogey man the dominant class has been strengthening its apparatus of repression creating a social ambience of an omnipresent political persecution, a fear of not saying the ‘wrong' word, or writing it for that matter. Although for the working class at large the present measures of repression are mostly ‘preemptive', direct repression for immigrant workers - legal and illegal-
are already very real. The press is filled with news about the official abuse of these workers by the State repressive apparatus. The question of immigration is being use as always to create divisions within the working class: to play immigrant against native workers, legal against illegal.
However in the ‘field' the most trusted and skillful representatives of capitalism in the struggle against the working class are the Unions and their twin brothers the Left and leftist organizations that use a working class-sounding language to sabotage the workers struggle from within. All the unions have been working hard, helping capitalism manage the crisis on the workers backs, negotiating lay-offs and wage and benefit cuts. And during strikes they have done their utmost to keep struggle workers in isolation, sabotaging solidarity and leading them into dead ends. For their part the leftist -trotskyst, maoist, Marxist-Leninist.... are doing their job in trying to block the development of working class consciousness, defending the unions as working class organizations and spreading the bourgeois ideologies of nationalism and interclasism.
By the bourgeoisie's own accounts the worst of its present economic difficulties are still to come. As the current crisis deepens the working class will face a barrage of attacks, the violence of which it has not seen in the recent past. If the promises of the present upsurge of the class struggle come to fruition will, we will also see an unprecedented level of mobilizations in which the historical stakes of the present will come to the forefront.
The bourgeoisie has no solution to the crisis and can only offer to humanity a future of increasing barbarity. The key to overcoming the present state of society rests with the working class, it is the only force that can through its worldwide revolution bring about a world community based in human needs and solidarity. The intervention of revolutionaries is the class struggle is an essential part of this perspective.
-- Edo Smith 4/12/2008