Despite bosses, Covid, and the unions: the class struggle has not disappeared!

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The ICC has published an article on the recent signs of a renewed fighting spirit in the working class in a number of countries: Struggles in the United States, in Iran, in Italy, in Korea... Neither the pandemic nor the economic crisis have broken the combativity of the proletariat! The struggles in the US are particularly important, and this contribution from a close sympathizer there aims to examine them in more detail.

Spurred on by the conditions imposed by the pandemic, the steady erosion of working class living and working standards in the United States have transformed over the last two years into an outright assault by the bourgeoisie. Whether they were tossed to the jaws of America’s dysfunctional unemployment insurance system, or forced to continue their work, risking the health of themselves and their families, as it was deemed necessary or “essential” to be carried on, workers have faced a constant onslaught since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. All of this while the capitalists attempt to force workers to march to the arrhythmic beating of their drums: some factions rallying behind conspiracy theories touted by the populist right as it devolves into fringe militias and online pseudo-communities based around the deluded lies which spread so quickly throughout social media, others taking advantage of the need for safety and caution in order to bolster the already overinflated security state. The only perspective which the bourgeoisie can put forward in this time of crisis is one tinged with a helplessness which can only be a reflection of the helplessness of the capitalist system wracked with convulsions as it writhes in the agony of its crisis of senility, the crisis of decomposition: “you, the essential workers, will keep our society afloat!” In its attempt to invigorate an already overworked and underpaid working class with a “work ethic”, i.e.mobilizing those essential sectors of the economy to produce nonstop to keep the capitalists’ heads above water, the bourgeoisie can’t hide a fundamental truth about the society it has built: the collective strength of the working class remains the power which keeps the gears turning, the water which spins the wheel, the fuel which feeds the fire. However, much to the surprise of the bourgeoisie, the working class has taken this to heart and is now showing precisely what it means to be at the center of the economy.

Carpenters confront both bosses and unions

“Striketober”, so named for the massive explosions of strikes which occurred in October, has given way to an equally combative November as workers across the country are taking action and refusing to work under degrading conditions for inhuman pay. Even before October, the latter half of this year has seen the development of strikes across the country – most notably in the plants of Frito Lay and Nabisco, while in September a strike by carpenters in Washington set the stage for the ongoing struggles which we are following closely as they continue to spring up across every sector of the economy. The Washington carpenters faced an assault on two fronts, as many workers often do – they faced an attack by both the bosses and the unions. While the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) presented contracts to the workers with concession after concession, filling every page with the desires of the bosses’ General Contractors Association (GCA), some of the most militant workers in the union formed their own group: the Peter J. McGuire Group, named after the UBC’s socialist founder. Though this group is a clear response to the existence of a widespread workers’ discontent, it remains caught up in the trap of rank-and-file unionism; according to its chairman, the Peter J. McGuire group has “promoted the right kind of leadership for the Carpenters Union”.[1] Though rank-and-file unionism fails to break free from the union framework, this broader discontent within the workforce enabled the Peter J. McGuire Group to gain a certain influence: after a year of organizing and agitating within the workplace and amongst fellow union members, when the carpenters were presented with a tentative agreement in which the demands of union members were not met, an overwhelming majority of UBC workers voted down the agreement and went on strike until an agreement which would be approved could be put forward. Much to the dismay of both the capitalists and the union leadership, the workers held the line and voted down five tentative agreements before the international leadership of the UBC involved themselves; claiming fraud and interference, the national leadership of the union took complete control of the local branch[2] which was the source of so much trouble, and the strike finally came to an end when the final agreement presented to the workers was narrowly approved.

In many ways, the stage was set for the experience of “Striketober” and its continuation into the present moment. Though the carpenters in Washington are back to work, the lessons of their struggle present an important perspective for the current struggles which are going on at this moment. The carpenters of the UBC faced opposition not only from the representatives of the capitalists, but from their own supposed “representatives” in the union as well! While the communist left has known of the danger presented by unions for quite some time, the lessons which formed and continue to confirm the analysis that unions are state organs which serve to restrain the workers must be generalized and emphasized in order to understand the difficulties which the “Striketober” struggles face today. This is one of the most important aspects in the ongoing wave of struggle. As an example of this, as well as to examine the second aspect which echoes in many of the present struggles, we must look to the struggles of the John Deere agricultural equipment workers in the Midwest.

John Deere: Workers oppose the divisive “Two-Tier” system

The workers of John Deere are “represented” by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which some may recognize from the beginning of the pandemic when it maneuvered with the bosses of car plants in Michigan to keep workers in the factories with minimal protection at best. Now, the UAW and John Deere are working together to expand the tiered system of wages and benefits which was established in 1997. It was in that year that workers of John Deere were split based on their year of hire; workers who were hired after 1997 would be part of a second tier of workers, which entailed a reduced wage compared to those hired earlier and the elimination of many benefits available to the pre-1997 workforce, such as post-retirement healthcare. This year the UAW presented its membership with a contract which would create a third tier of workers, with wages dropping even lower amongst them and with the further elimination of benefits, including their pensions. This was quickly shot down by the union membership, and the John Deere workers of roughly 11 factories and 3 distribution centers, from Iowa to Georgia, Illinois to Colorado, have been on strike ever since; refusing to degrade their future colleagues they have voted no on several tentative agreements brought to them by Deere and the UAW during the course of their strike. Here again, we see the workers of John Deere struggling against a joint offensive of their bosses and the workers’ own union! The rank-and-file workers are forced to stand tall on their own – but just because they are “on their own” does not indicate an isolation or weakening of the struggle. It is, rather, a positive development that the workers are prepared to reject the advice of the union and insist on maintaining their own demands. This is a trend in many of the battles being waged by the working class, in which the unions are trailing behind an increasingly combative class which is awakening labor militancy across the country (and the world for that matter). In fact, autoworkers in Detroit, Michigan, who are also members of the UAW, expressed solidarity with the striking John Deere workers[3]. It is clear to see that John Deere workers are not alone in the struggle against the maneuvers of the union, nor are they alone in fighting the system of tiered labor imposed on them by the bosses and unions.

Kellogg’s: signs of solidarity between the generations

The struggle against the two-tier system of wages and benefits is also prevalent in the strike of the workers of Kellogg’s, as their union, the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) is allowing the further expansion of a two-tier system which was approved in the last contract with the cereal makers – it should be noted that it is the BCTGM union which “represents” the Nabisco and Frito Lay workers who were on strike earlier this year, citing absurdly long work weeks (sometimes up to 70 hours) with no overtime pay. The lower tier of wages which was negotiated in the last contract was to be capped at 30% of the workforce – a weak check against this divisive policy, but a check nonetheless. Kellogg’s is seeking to raise this cap, and to allow more workers to be hired into this lower tier. The workers have seen this as a clear attack not just on future colleagues, but their present coworkers as well – allowing Kellogg’s to lift this cap could very well open up the path to further denigration of the current workforce and a fall in the standard of living for these workers. On top of this is another issue: workers are only ever growing older. As the workers of the higher tier retire or seek employment elsewhere, slowly but surely it will be the lower tier which dominates and eventually makes up the whole of the workforce. There can be no doubt about it: this is a system of not only dividing workers but one of keeping them in an ever-increasing state of precariousness. This is evident not only in the struggles of Striketober, in which the workers are actively identifying this as an attack on their existence and putting up a serious resistance to it, but in the labor regulations which have shaped the division of labor in the United States in the phase of decadent capital for decades – the system of tiered labor created by automation and the New Deal.

Workers face divisions old and new

The policies implemented throughout the 1930’s which made up the New Deal provided secure union jobs with pensions and benefits in manufacturing and transportation, the sectors of the economy where the intensification of productivity was entirely possible on an enormous scale – thus setting the scene for the massive improvement in the living standards of manufacturing workers compared to their pre-Great Depression standards which would result from the period of post-war reconstruction. In spite of these policies setting up workers in these industries for success over the next few decades, there was an enormous section of the American workforce which was missing from these improvements: workers in the service sector. While the service sector was hardly negligible in the 1930’s, it would experience a massive growth in the decades to come due to the widespread implementation of computer-assisted labor-saving technologies throughout heavy industry – automation was set to shock the labor market and stimulate the growth of the service sector in a way that would set the stage for the current state of labor and the economy in our present day. As author Jason Smith puts it in his Smart Machines and Service Work, due to the rapid implementation of automation, “factories that had been roiled by worker unrest were expanding production at unprecedented rates, and with far fewer workers.”[4] As such, manufacturing shed jobs and workers found themselves tossed into unemployment with no option other than to sell their labor for cheap in the service sector. Because of the dominant presence of the unions, it was often workers who were unaffiliated with any union who could be most easily laid off – and in the landscape of America’s labor economy, this often meant black workers. Around this time, as well, women began entering the labor market in a more significant manner than previously, spurred on by the second wave of feminism’s slogans of “jobs for women”. The jobs they often found were in the swelling service sector, finding work in “clerical and business services, in healthcare, education, and retail”[5].

We should keep in mind that the service sector’s lack of legal protections and regulations meant that, overall, workers in service occupations were paid far less and received far fewer benefits on average than their counterparts in manufacturing. Hence the creation of a two-tier system in the general labor economy as a whole, not merely in the union contracts which workers are struggling against today. The way in which this division of the class took place conveniently split workers along the lines of race and gender; the ideological hangover of chattel slavery, the racist image of the “subservient” black worker was upheld by their entry into service sector jobs while the patriarchal image of the “submissive” woman was also confirmed by their employment. As such, capital had divided the working class in such a way that previous prejudices could be affirmed by reality so long as no worker should dare to look beyond the surface. The predominantly white and male manufacturing workers could easily be separated from their black and female counterparts, while movements for racial and gender equality would separate workers from the class struggle and lead them into dead-end identity struggles which cannot find an emancipatory answer to the issues of race and gender in capitalist society. Meanwhile the workers of the manufacturing sector, which has been shrinking for decades now, find themselves downwardly mobile, and this too expresses itself through another version of the impasse of identity struggles; rather than finding solidarity with those in the service industries as it increasingly becomes the only avenue for employment in many places across the country, they shrink back into their white identity and feel they must defend their social standing from the minorities, the migrants, the feminists, and the “elite” (which, in most cases, only refers to wealthy Democrats). This fuels the flame of populism which has swept the United States since the 2016 election cycle and continues to shape the stances of the Republican party for the time being.

This split, however, is not an unbridgeable gap – in fact, it is in the struggles of today that an answer to these divisions can be found. Not only are workers struggling in manufacturing, but also in the service sector. Similar to the strikes described above, healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities along the west coast were set to strike against a two-tier deal; unions have stepped in at the last minute with a deal, which still lacked many of the workers’ demands, in order to avert the strike. Not only have nurses been quelled[6], but so too have Kaiser pharmacists[7] who were set to strike starting November 15th. Another strike which was crushed by union representation was film and television production crew members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) who were set to strike until a tentative agreement was put forward and ratified in spite of a majority rejecting the deal[8]. This goes to show that outside of the traditional industrial landscape, there is an increasing indignation and demand for better living and working standards coming from the workers themselves, while unions run to catch up and weigh these workers down. Workers who have hitherto not been unionized have also been forced to take action – following the example of school bus drivers in Cumberland County, North Carolina who have been staging “sick outs” in protest of their unlivable wages[9], cafeteria workers in nearby Wake County have taken to using the same tactic[10] for much of the same reason.

Unions aim to preempt workers’ militancy

All of this goes to show that the combativity of workers across the country is reverberating: strikes stimulate workers who are facing similar conditions and breed more strikes. However, the working class still faces many obstacles which come with the pandemic, the period of capitalist decadence more generally, and its phase of decomposition. One of these, as mentioned briefly above, is the issue of the trade unions which serve the capitalist state in the period of decadence. While they struggle to contain many of the ongoing struggles, they have intervened to prevent strike action in many other cases. It should be noted that not only do unions pose a direct threat, but an indirect threat as well; the UAW is currently set to vote on measures which would “democratize” the union, making their elections direct as opposed to the current delegate system. While the implementation of this may seem to be a victory for the rank and file, it also puts forward an illusion which may serve to derail future struggles: the identification of the rank and file with the union itself, the illusion that the union belongs to the workers. The ICC has written previously on the character of the unions in decadent capitalism[11], so I will not go into this further.

“Identity Politics”: a crucial divide in the working class

Yet another threat faces the working class: the interclassist struggles and partial identity struggles which have reared their ugly heads over the past few years. Particularly in the United States, the previous year’s summer of Black Lives Matter action which had its basis in the very real indignation and specific issues of black people in America found its footing on a bourgeois terrain and raised a slogan which comes nowhere close to the heart of the issue, the slogan “defund the police”. Democrats have done their best to gesture vaguely toward creating a policy which would do just this, only to immediately reverse course; even reduced to such slogans and promotion of Democratic policy, the simple, liberal demand which echoed across the BLM marches finds its echo dampened. Should the current class struggles develop further, as struggling workers find themselves uniting across lines of plant, company, and industry, the very real material inequality of black workers will be an issue which the working class will have to answer on its own terrain, with no concessions to any bourgeois movement. One last obstacle is the isolated actions which have been taking place in the form of mass resignation from employment. The labor market remains tight as more and more workers are quitting their jobs, often sharing their final texts to their supervisors on social media in a show of solidarity with all those who may be considering doing the same. While this may put the capitalists in a tight spot, the isolating nature of individual resignation avoids the question of self-organization altogether, and the shared experiences of workers cannot be expressed so clearly through social media, no matter how far texts shared in solidarity may reach.

In spite of these obstacles, however, the working class today still seems to be moving tentatively forward. The minor defeats it has experienced do not seem to be putting the brakes on the momentum of the working class, and more and more workers are finding themselves with no option but to strike for a better life by the day. We cannot but express great satisfaction at this refusal of the workers to take the degradation of their lives lying down, and we must clearly emphasize that only by uniting can these struggles be taken further and further, perhaps eventually coming to a point where it must pose very significant political questions. It is a clear demonstration in the united action across many plants, such as at John Deere, that it is only through further extension of struggle can momentum be kept up. Such extension requires the intervention of communist militants in order to provide a political perspective, especially as the struggle may develop to cross borders within and beyond the United States – the working class worldwide, despite the enormous difficulties it faces, has shown that it is not defeated, that it still contains a potential to fight back and to take its struggles forward. While we may observe this phenomenon with great enthusiasm, it is also imperative that we participate in these struggles so that we may assist the working class in realizing its strength and its historic task: the abolition of class society.

Noah L, 11/16/2021


Workers’ struggles in the USA