The turn in class struggle discussed in the accompanying article on this page has been echoed here in the US, demonstrating the international character of the struggle between the working class and capitalism.
In the US, the precipitating issue has not been pensions, but medical benefits which have been under severe attack for several years. The struggles that have emerged around this issue are particularly important because they have begun to raise fundamental issues concerning the growing bankruptcy of the capitalist system, as its deepening economic crisis forces it to attack the wages and standard of living of the working class.
The social wage in the US - that part of the cost of reproduction of the working class not paid directly to the workers as cash wages, but paid by the state - is less centralized than in European countries. Medical benefits, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and pensions are not centralized through the state in the same way as they are in many European nations. Instead, the social wage is diffused through a sophisticated web of federal, state, employers and union programs and pension funds. For example, social security, a federal government program which covers all retirees is only a base level pension, providing a fundamentally poverty level subsistence, and must be supplemented for most workers by other pension plans to maintain an acceptable standard of living during their retirement. Some of these plans are administered by unions, some by employers, some by private pension funds. When the ruling class moves to attack pensions, it doesn't do so by announcing a national policy of across-the-board cuts, which, as experience elsewhere amply demonstrates, risks provoking a massive reaction from the working class. Rather, the attacks are diffused through different pension plans in different ways, cutting benefits, increasing the amount workers must contribute, raising the age of retirement, or even plunging some funds into bankruptcy, in which case pensions are entirely lost.
Likewise with medical benefits, which are only funded directly by the federal government for the poor (Medicaid) and for the elderly (Medicare), rather than Washington announcing an outright cut in medical coverage, the attacks are diffused through thousands of employer plans and HMO's and insurance plans. However, in the past three years the attacks on medical benefits have escalated to the extent of increasingly appearing as a generalized attack. Employers and unions have been working hand in glove to slash workers medical benefits. Typically this takes the form of forcing workers to pay higher out of pocket expenses and to pick up larger and larger portions of the insurance premium, which becomes tantamount to a wage cut on the one hand and a slash in quality of medical care for workers and their families on the other.
The era when large companies covered all or most of health care costs is over. In the last two years insurance premiums rose fastest in a decade, at the rate of 14% per year, more than 3 times the official government rate of inflation. In 2003, only 4% of large employers still pay 100% of insurance, down from 21% just 15 years ago in 1988. From 2000 to 2003, there has been a 50% increase in what workers must pay for their medical coverage. The situation in regard to prescription coverage is even worse. The amount that workers must pay for prescription drug coverage jumped 46 to 71% in the same period. A total of 43.6 million people in the richest, most powerful capitalist country in the world have no medical coverage - 15% of the population.
All of this combined has meant a gross deterioration in the real wages and standard of living of the proletariat and has pushed workers inescapably towards the necessity of taking up the class struggle in defense of their class interests.
Earlier this year, there was a strike at General Electric over the issue of medical insurance premiums. But things came to a head in October, when a whole series of struggles erupted over medical benefits. In Chicago it was sanitation workers, in Los Angeles transit workers. Later this was followed by 30,000 grocery store workers in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, and then by an additional 70,000 grocery workers in California - who are still on strike after seven weeks. Significantly in California truck drivers are now refusing to make deliveries to the struck stores.
These struggles are in stark contrast to other strikes in the 1990s, such as the United Parcel Strike (UPS) in 1997, which was essentially a manoeuvre to strengthen the badly damaged image of the unions in the eyes of the workers. Those strikes did not correspond so much to the genuine combativeness of the workers, as it did to the needs of capitalism to strengthen its shop floor police - the unions. The strikes we have seen in October are not union manoeuvres but a genuine manifestation of growing working class combativeness. In each case, the union involved reached agreement with management on contracts granting cuts in medical benefits and recommended these contracts for ratification by membership vote. However, in each case these agreements were rejected by the workers overwhelmingly, by more than 66% margins. At the beginning of the strike in California the supermarkets ran full page ads reprinting the union president's letter to the members urging ratification of a fair and equitable agreement. "We couldn't agree more," concluded the company's ad. It was only after the resounding rejection of the contracts that the unions scurried to catch up and in order to keep control of the struggle, in order to sabotage it from within.
Powerless to prevent these outbreaks of workers combativeness, the unions role internationally and in the US has been to sabotage these struggles as much as possible, to retard the process of re-appropriation of the lessons of past struggles. How? By keeping struggles isolated, by emphasizing a struggle around specific demands of the particular sector on strike, by insisting that "we are fighting for our benefits," not against a generalized ruling class attack against all workers. This blocks development of consciousness seeing the link between the attack on medical benefits and pensions and the bankruptcy of capitalism. It leads to isolation, rather than active solidarity, and distorts the tendency towards extension into division within the class. In fact the unions limit the struggle to the defense of the medical benefits and abandon any attempt for other gains. So if the company pulls back on the medical benefits cuts in exchange for double-zero wage settlements, the union declares a victory, even though the workers still emerge as losers.
These recent struggles are significant but they should not be exaggerated. The working class does not need cheerleaders who hail any manifestation of combativeness and class struggle uncritically, but revolutionaries who are capable of recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the struggle, and can put forth an intervention that can maximize the potentiality contained in the situation, and attack the weaknesses of the struggles. As important as these struggles are, it is abundantly clear that the workers still have difficulty to break free of the unions' grasp. Despite the fact that in each case, the workers rejected the austerity contract agreed to by the union, in each case they were incapable of seeing the fact that the unions' cooperation with management exposed their capitalist class nature. Rather than take the struggle into their own hands, the workers permitted the same union leadership that had been content to sell them out, to lead the strike and continue negotiations.
This difficulty to see the necessity to confront the unions as part of the capitalist class is closely linked to the reflux in consciousness and disorientation that has gripped the international proletariat since the collapse of the Stalinist bloc, which has been characterized by a loss of self-identity as a class, and a consequent lack of self-confidence on the part of workers. The intervention of revolutionaries in these struggles must on the one hand be aimed at exposing the unions' role in sabotaging and isolating the struggles, and on the other hand at helping the class to regain its self identity as a class, and its understanding of active solidarity in struggle.