Today, a series of strikes in the United States, led by disgruntled workers, is shaking large parts of the country. This movement called “striketober” has mobilised thousands of workers who are denounce unbearable working conditions, physical and psychological fatigue, the outrageous increase in profits, including during the pandemic, made by employers of industrial groups like Kellog's, John Deere, PepsiCo or in the health sector and private clinics, as in New York, for example. It is difficult to count the exact number of strikes because the federal government only counts those involving more than a thousand employees. The fact that the working class can react and show combativity in a country that is now at the centre of the global decomposition process is a sign that the proletariat is not defeated.
For almost two years, a lead blanket had been falling over the working class all over the world with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the repeated episodes of lockdown, emergency hospitalisations and millions of deaths. All over the world, the working class was the victim of the generalised negligence of the bourgeoisie, of the decay of overburdened health services subjected to the demands of profitability. The pressures of day-to-day life and fears for tomorrow reinforced an already strong feeling of vulnerability in the ranks of the workers, accentuating the tendency to withdraw into one’s shell. After the revival of combativity that had been expressed in several countries during 2019 and at the beginning of 2020, the social confrontations came to a sudden halt. If the movement against the pension reform in France had shown a new dynamism in social conflicts, the Covid-19 pandemic proved to be a powerful stifler.
But in the midst of the pandemic, struggles on the terrain of the working class were nevertheless able to emerge here and there, in Spain, Italy, France, through sporadic movements already expressing a relative capacity to react in the face of unbearable working conditions, particularly in the face of the increased exploitation and cynicism of the bourgeoisie in sectors such as health care, transport or trade. However, the isolation imposed by the deadly virus and the climate of terror conveyed by the bourgeoisie prevented these struggles from putting forward a real alternative to the degradation of living conditions.
Worse, these expressions of discontent with hellish and health-threatening working conditions, workers’ refusal to go to work without masks and protection, were presented by the bourgeoisie as selfish, irresponsible demands and above all as guilty of undermining the social and economic unity of the nation in its fight against the health crisis.
A fragile but real awakening of workers’ combativity
After years in which the American population has been under the thumb of an all-powerful state, of being fed by the populist lies of Donald Trump, who wanted to be the champion of full employment, and by the Democratic spiel of the “new Roosevelt”, Joe Biden, thousands of workers are gradually creating the conditions to form a collective force that they had once forgotten, slowly rediscovering confidence in their own strength. They have been openly rejecting the despicable “two-tier pay system” (), thus demonstrating a solidarity between generations, with the majority of experienced and “protected” workers fighting alongside their young colleagues who work in much more precarious conditions.
Even if these strikes are very well supervised by the unions (which have, moreover, allowed the bourgeoisie to present these mobilisations as the “great revival” of the unions in the United States), we have seen some signs of questioning of the agreements signed by different unions. This protest is embryonic and the working class is still far from a direct and conscious confrontation with these watchdogs of the bourgeois state. But it is a very real sign of combativity.
Some might think that these struggles in the US are the exception that proves the rule: they are not! Other struggles have emerged in recent weeks and months:
- In Iran, this summer, strikes in the oil sector against low wages and high living costs saw workers from more than 70 sites participate in the movement. This was the first time this had happened in the 42 years since the advent of the Islamic republic. Other sectors also supported the strikers;
- In Korea, a general strike had to be organised by the unions in October for social benefits, against precariousness and unequal wages;
- In Italy, last September and October, there were numerous days of action, strikes and calls for a general strike against redundancies, and also against the discussions between the Italian General Confederation of Labour, the government and the employers for a “social pact” to get out of Covid. In short: for easier dismissals and the abolition of the minimum wage;
- In Germany, the public services union Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft feels obliged to threaten strikes in an attempt to obtain wage increases.
- In Britain strikes are underway or have been voted by refuse workers, university staff, transport workers and others.
Inflation will worsen living conditions
If you listen to all the bourgeois economists, the current inflation that is pushing up the prices of energy and basic goods, thus draining purchasing power, in the US, France, the UK or Germany, is only a cyclical product of the “economic recovery”.
According to the economic experts, the surge in inflation is linked to “specific aspects”, such as bottlenecks in maritime or road transport, to the “overheating” in the recovery of industrial production, particularly the spectacular increase in fuel and gas prices. In this view it’s just a passing moment while the whole process of economic production regains its balance. Everything is done to reassure us and justify a “necessary” inflationary process... which is nevertheless likely to last.
The resort to “helicopter” money, the hundreds of billions of dollars, euros, yen or yuan that the states have printed and poured out without counting the cost, for months, to deal with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic and avoid widespread chaos, has only weakened the value of currencies and is pushing a chronic inflationary process. There will be a price to pay, and the working class is in the front line of these attacks.
Even if there has not yet been a direct and massive reaction against this attack, inflation can serve as a powerful factor of development and unification of struggles: the increase in the prices of basic necessities, gas, bread, electricity, etc. can only directly degrade the living conditions of all workers, whether they work in the public or private sector, whether they are active, unemployed or retired. Being hungry and cold will be major elements in triggering future social movements, including in the core countries of capitalism.
The governments of the world are proceeding with caution. Although they have not yet imposed formal austerity programmes but, on the contrary, have massively injected millions and millions of dollars, yen and euros into the economy, they know that it is absolutely necessary to revive activity and that a social time bomb is ticking away.
While the governments thought they would quickly end all Covid-related support measures and “normalise” the accounts as soon as possible, Biden (to avoid social disaster) has thus put in place a “historic plan” for intervention that will “create millions of jobs, grow the economy, invest in our nation and our people”. () You'd think you were dreaming! The same is true in Spain, where the socialist Pedro Sanchez is implementing a massive plan of 248 billion euros of all-out social spending, to the great displeasure of a part of the bourgeoisie that does not know how the bill will be paid. In France, too, behind all the hoopla and electoral rhetoric for the 2022 presidential election, the government is trying to anticipate social discontent with “energy vouchers” and an “inflation allowance” for millions of taxpayers.
Major difficulties and pitfalls to overcome
But recognising and highlighting the capacity of the proletariat to react must not lead to euphoria and the illusion that a royal road is opening up for the workers’ struggle. Because of the difficulty of the working class to recognise itself as an exploited class and to become aware of its revolutionary role, the path to significant struggles that open the way to a revolutionary period is still a very long one.
In these conditions the confrontation remains fragile, poorly organised, largely controlled by the unions, those state organs specialised in sabotaging struggles and which accentuate corporatism and division.
In Italy, for example, the initial demands and the combativity of the last struggles have been diverted by the unions and the Italian leftists towards a dangerous impasse: the rotten slogan of “the first mass industrial strike in Europe against the health pass” that the Italian government has imposed on all the workers.
Similarly, while some sectors are strongly affected by the crisis, closures, restructuring and increased work rates, other sectors are confronted with a lack of manpower and/or a one-off production boom (as in freight transport where there is a shortage of hundreds of thousands of drivers in Europe). This situation contains a danger of division within the class through sectional demands that the unions will not hesitate to exploit or to stir up.
Let's add to that the calls of the “radical” left of capital to mobilise ourselves on bourgeois terrain: against the far right and the “fascists” responsible for violence in demonstrations or in favour of the “citizens’ marches” for the climate... This is one more expression of the vulnerability of proletarians to the discourses of the far left, which is capable of using any means to deviate the struggle onto a non-proletarian terrain, notably that of interclassism
Similarly, if inflation can act as a factor of unification of struggles, it also affects the petty-bourgeoisie, with the increase in the price of petrol and taxes, elements which had moreover given rise to the emergence of the interclassist movement of the “Yellow Vests” in France. The current context remains, in fact, conducive to the occurrence of “popular” revolts in which proletarian demands remain buried in the sterile and reactionary preoccupations of the small bosses, themselves hit hard by the crisis. This is, for example, the case in China where the collapse of the real estate giant Evergrande symbolises in a very spectacular way the reality of an over-indebted, fragile China, but which leads to the protest of small owners who have been robbed of their savings or properties.
Interclassist struggles are a real trap and do not allow the working class to assert its own demands, its own combativity, its own autonomy, its own historical perspective. The rotting of capitalist society, increased by the pandemic, weighs and will continue to weigh on the working class, which is still facing great difficulties.
Only the united struggle of all proletarians can offer a perspective
Absenteeism at work, chains of resignations, the refusal to return to work for very low wages, have not stopped growing in recent months. But these are individual reactions that are more a reflection of an (illusory) attempt to escape from capitalist exploitation than to face it through a collective struggle with class comrades. The bourgeoisie does not hesitate to exploit this weakness in order to denigrate and make these “resigners”, these “demanding” workers feel guilty by making them directly “responsible” for the lack of staff in hospitals or restaurants, for example! In other words, to sow more division in the workers' ranks.
Despite all these difficulties, these pitfalls, this last period has opened a breach and clearly confirms that the working class is capable of asserting itself on its own terrain.
The development of class consciousness depends on this renewal of combativity, and this is still a long road full of pitfalls. Revolutionaries must welcome and support these struggles, but their primary responsibility is to fight as best they can for their extension, for their politicisation, which is necessary to keep the revolutionary perspective alive. This implies being able to recognise their limits and weaknesses by firmly denouncing the traps set for them by the bourgeoisie and the illusions that threaten them, wherever they come from.
Stopio, 3 November 2021