U.S. Workers Return to The Class Struggle

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Throughout the United States in recent months there have been a number of important strikes. The working class’ refusal to accept austerity is expressing itself in its increasing willingness to struggle. While these struggles have remained largely within the control of the unions and have mostly ended in defeat, revolutionaries should salute these signs of increasing combativity in the class and follow them closely. With public debt crisis and struggles against austerity in Europe, major struggles in India, South Africa, and Latin America, and China, the recent strikes in the U.S. are part of an international dynamic of the working class’ recovery of solidarity and self-confidence in the world working class beginning around 2003. This dynamic was interrupted by the worldwide financial crisis in 2008 (despite impressive struggles in Greece, Britain, and other countries), but since the beginning of the year, the working class has been returning to the path of class struggle, and shown that it will no longer accept austerity without a fight.

Since late spring, workers have gone on strike in Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Illinois, Washington State, New York State, and nationally in the aeronautics industry, and as we go to press an unofficial illegal dockworkers strike movement is spreading throughout the East Coast port cities. Significantly, these struggles have taken up many of the central issues of the pre-2008 strikes: health care, benefits, pensions, layoffs, and the general perspective of the future that capitalism has to offer. In 2003, for instance, the grocery workers strike movement in Southern California was concerned primarily with the creation of new tiers of health and pension benefits for new hires, and in 2005 the NYC transit strike over the future of a pension plan for new hires expressed major step forward in the development of inter-generational solidarity in the working class over these same questions.

With the onset of the crisis, workers were at first somewhat paralyzed, like deer in the headlights, with the very real threat of unemployment and plant closure. The decision to go on strike and confront the bosses was not taken lightly -- no one can afford to be laid off in a country with over 10% official unemployment and over 16% real unemployment[1] -- most workers retreated from the class struggle, sometimes expressing hopes that the next generation could recover lost ground when the time for struggle was better.

Another factor delaying the working class’ response to the attacks associated with the recent financial crisis was undoubtedly the democratic mystification and tremendous hope people had in the newly elected Obama administration to deliver on its promise of “change.” On election night there were parties in the street with elated voters banging pots and pans in celebration. Instead, what we have seen from almost two years of the Obama presidency is no real drop in unemployment, a real economy that continues to stagnate despite massive injections of credit from the State, health care “reform” that is already beginning to raise workers’ health care premiums, and the return of dramatic increases in the cost of living while employers continue to take advantage of the crisis to attack wages, pensions, benefits, and staffing levels across the board. By and large, the unions had put their hopes in the new Obama regime, hoping for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (now dead in the water), selling the health care reform and promising all kinds of other reforms for workers from the new administration. Today workers’ discontent is no longer able to be channeled entirely toward the governmental reforms and the electoral circus—workers are more and more ready to struggle to defend their future.

The first signs of struggle on a massive scale were in the education sector in California this spring. When in the face of the state’s bankruptcy, tuition fees were raised 30% and staff faced serious attacks on their living and working conditions, students occupied universities, blocked roadways and attempts were made at creating assemblies and drawing teachers and staff and other parts of the California working class out in support[2] .

But this was only the beginning. Shortly afterward nurses in Philadelphia struck against employer provocations of removing tuition benefits and instituting a “gag clause” against criticizing their hospital’s administration, drawing significant sympathy from other workers throughout the region. In early June, 12,000 nurses from 6 hospitals in Minneapolis-St. Paul engaged in a one-day work stoppage and voted to authorize an open-ended strike that would have been the largest nurses’ strike in U.S. history. Here nurses were fighting primarily for the restoration of staffing levels and for specific nurse-to-patient ratios to be written into their contract, whereas the hospitals were seeking to institutionalize the low staffing levels they’d had since the onset of the 2008 recession. After the strike authorization, just as the contract was set to expire, the nurses’ union (Minnesota Nurses Association) agreed to non-binding federal arbitration and a 10-day “cooling off period,” during which they announced more than a week in advance their plan for a one-day strike on June 10. Despite the real militancy of the nurses and their willingness to defend their working conditions, the union was given a free hand to conduct the struggle, and immediately after this one-day strike they announced a tentative agreement that dropped the central demand of mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios, took the hospitals’ pay offer, and made no changes to health and benefit plans. Leftists and unionists throughout the country continue to hail this is a major class victory, but the nurses’ own Facebook page revealed a real dissatisfaction at the abandonment of the central demand in exchange for no real gains.[3]

One month later, more than 15,000 construction workers in two different unions struck in the Chicago area for much needed wage increases to cover health care costs and make up for rampant unemployment and decreased hours in one of the industries hit hardest by the recession. In the month of July alone, the Illinois construction industry lost 14,900 jobs.[4] A statement from International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 President-Business Manager James Sweeney during the strike reported that hours for their members have been reduced by 40%, and that out of 8500 members, 1000 depend on food banks and 1200 have lost their health care benefits.[5]   After 19 days, workers ended the strike accepting the lowest pay increase in 10 years and no attempts at offsetting rising health care costs or dealing with unemployment and decreased hours. Still, despite the stranglehold of the unions, many workers in other trades honored picket lines and refused to work on struck projects in solidarity. Interestingly, the Illinois Department of Transportation informed the building contractor’s association threatening to refuse deadline extensions for state projects and indicating that it may invoke no-strike requirements against future struggles. Also in Chicago in early September, Hyatt hotel workers staged a one-day strike (just as the nurses’ union had) in protest at layoffs and demanded concessions in their upcoming contract.

The summer also saw 700 workers in Delaware striking for the first time against Delmarva Power and Conectiv Energy against cuts in pension benefits and the elimination of retiree health for new hires, returning to work with a split contract vote and repeated calls for a recount. Teachers struck in Danville, IL, for the rehiring of those laid off in recent emergency budget cutbacks and against a contract including a pay-freeze and the institution of bonuses based on student-performance, and in Bellevue, WA, for wages and against standardized curricula. Also in Bellevue, Coca-Cola workers staged a week-long strike over a new contract requiring them to pay 25% of all health-care premiums as opposed to their previous flat rate, but returned to work after the company cancelled their health insurance and the union filed a class-action lawsuit, insisting it was better to go back to work. Bellevue is also home to one of the Boeing plants on strike this summer (plants in St. Louis, MO, and Long Beach, CA also struck) where workers returned to work after 57 days with no changes to the company’s proposed contract except $1/hr increases for some of the lowest paid.

The longest strike this summer (and the one receiving perhaps the most sympathy from the rest of the class) was at a Mott’s Applesauce plant in Williamson, NY, where the company determined that even though they’d been making record profits, the wage they paid to their 300 employees was out of line with industry standards and demanded $1.50/hr wage cuts in the new contract. The strike drew national attention as a particularly savage and unnecessary attack by the company and after an isolating, demoralizing 16 week attrition battle, the union “won” a contract that left wage and pension levels for existing employees alone, but eliminated defined pensions for all new hires, cuts matching payments to retirement health plans, and requires workers to pay 20% of health care premiums and half of any increases above the first 10%. Despite the union’s cry of “victory,” even dyed-in-the-wool unionists have asked whether the strike was really a success.[6] 

Most recently, in the final days of September, longshoremen in Camden, NJ, and Philadelphia engaged in an unofficial two-day strike against Del Monte who had moved 200 jobs to a non-union port in Gloucester, NJ which was joined by dockworkers all the way up New Jersey into Brooklyn refusing to cross the informal picket line. Right at the start of the strike, the New York Shipping Association got an injunction from a federal judge in Newark declaring the strike illegal and on the second day of the action, the International Longshoreman’s Association disavowed any association with the strikers, calling on union stewards to send the pickets back to work, and promising that they had convinced shipping associations and industry heads to meet with them a week later to “discuss” the eliminated positions.

While all of these strike movements have remained either mostly or completely within the union straitjacket, and as such, have been defeated (usually with the declaration of “victory” by the union), the return of the class to the path struggle is helping the class regain the necessary confidence and relearn the lessons of past struggles. This will throw the role of the unions into stark relief. As the ‘victories’ they are able to win with pre-announced one-day strikes, isolated battles of attrition, federal arbitration, class-action lawsuits, and the rest of the union rulebook are shown to be defeats, the working class through its struggles will have to re-learn the lessons of self-organization and extension that the ruling class has tried so hard to make it forget. These struggles are an expression of the same international movement of the working class that has brought strikes in Britain, Spain, Turkey, and Greece in the face of state austerity measures, a nation-wide strike in India, wildcat strikes in auto plants in China, and important strike movements in Latin America. The return to struggle and recovery of solidarity, the preoccupation with the future and the willingness to strike to defend it are an expression of the international working class’ return to its historic struggle and should be hailed as such by revolutionaries everywhere. 

JJ, 10/10/10.


 


[3].- Lerner, Maura. “Deal Was ‘a Win for Both Sides.’” Minneapolis Star-Tribune. 2 July, 2010.

 

[4].- Knowles, Francine. “State Loses Jobs but Gains in Manufacturing.” The Chicago Sun-Times. 20 August 2010.

 

[5].- Quoted on the Chicago Union News blog

 

[6].- See Elk, Mike. “Was the Mott’s ‘Victory’ Really a Victory?” Huffington Post. 14 September 2010.

 

 

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