In the last few months, there has been a series of simultaneous strikes and struggles in the US, the likes of which we haven't seen in quite a while. This includes a number of official union strikes, such as the strike by the Access-A-Ride drivers in New York who provide transportation for people with disabilities, as well as the Broadway theater stagehands, and the film and tv writers which has paralyzed production of new movies and television programs.The tendency of the working class in the US to come back to the path of the struggle also confirms that it is totally inscribed in the international resurgence of class struggle, which has been happening for the last four or five years across the globe, and was highlighted most importantly by the students' movement against the CPE in France in November 2005.
However, by far the most interesting struggle was the wildcat strike by so-called "free-lance workers" at MTV in New York City. These workers, many of them in their 20's and 30's, lead precarious existence but have long put up with little or no health care and relatively low wages because of the ‘glamour' associated with ‘working for MTV'. The bosses like to call them ‘free-lancers,' non-permanent employees, to justify the fact that they are not included in the standard benefits and wage programs at the company. MTV employs nearly 5,000 of these workers, who prefer to call themselves ‘permalancers', because many of them have been working for MTV for years. They are non-unionized, and treated as "independent contractors" by the company. When the company unilaterally announced a plan to cut their minimal medical benefits and contributions to their 401k retirement accounts on December 11, 2007 these young workers walked out spontaneously and took to the streets, carrying signs reading, "there are too many of us to ignore." And they did so again on January 3, 2008.
It's clear they have become painfully aware of their proletarianized status and totally identify themselves as workers, with the same needs, and the same plight, as their own parents. In the heat of the struggle, MTV workers not only identified themselves with the rest of the working class, but, in an echo of the methods used by their class brothers in France at the time of the struggles against the CPE, they also attempted to self-organize. At the walkout on December 14, a list was circulated of everyone's personal email address, so "...we can organize a website that people can go to for information." They also organized groups of delegates to approach the film and television writers, who were on strike at the same time.
While this mobilization has not seen the maturity or development of the students' movement in France, we see the reflection of the same dynamic toward the search for solidarity and the recognition of class identity. In the words of one young demonstrator: "We are not free-lancers because we come in and work at the same place every day, don't work on equipment we own, have taxes taken out of our paychecks, and report to people that are staff." The result of this struggle is that MTV reinstated the 401k plan that it had rolled back, and conceded health benefits for workers who had worked steadily since March, without an additional waiting period, as envisioned in the new package to take effect on January 1. But the MTV workers are not settled yet on the health care plan, which, under the proposed package, includes higher deductibles and a $2,000 cap on hospital expenses each year.
Although these workers did not win a clear victory in this confrontation, it is clear that the bosses want to avoid an all-out confrontation. Above all, their struggle shows the capacity of the workers to take the struggle into their own hands, to organize autonomously and to the see the possibility to seek unity with other workers in struggle.
Where workers are unionized, their only weapon is their militancy. The building cleaners, doormen, and elevator operators' carried out a series of mass demonstrations in Manhattan in December reflecting their militancy and threatening to strike on New Year's Day. The strike was averted by a last minute tentative agreement -that still has to be ratified - which includes increases of 20 percent in management contributions to the health benefit and of 40 percent to the pension benefit funds. In addition wages will increase by 4.18 percent a year for the next four years. Also, many jobs have been transformed from part time to full time and many janitors were given family health coverage. Of course this isn't the "big" victory that the union claims, because these workers' wages and benefits have been always very low to begin with. But it is certain that if the workers had not been as militant, they would have gotten a much worse deal.
In the film and television writers strike the unions have done their time-honored job of sabotaging the struggle. The demands of the writers, to share in the revenues from the sales of DVDs and online downloads of the shows they have written, have widespread support in the industry. Many actors who sympathize with the striking writers have refused to cross the picketline, but the dozen or more unions in the entertainment and broadcasting industry (separate unions for actors, news writers, news reporters, carpenters, electricians, stagehands etc) have maintained their institutionalized tradition of not only crossing each other's picket lines, but of never asking other workers to respect the pickets, let alone join the struggle. Nevertheless, despite their relatively high salaries and "glamour" jobs, the writers are increasingly aware of their proletarianized situation, as illustrated by remarks by one writer at a Writers Guild of America meeing shortly before the strike began: "This (residual payment for the DVDs and downloads) is such a big issue that if they see us roll over on this without making a stand, three years from now, they're gonna be back for something else. ...it'll be ‘we want to revamp the whole residual system,' and in another three years, it'll be "y'know what, we don't really want to fund the health fund the way we've been.' And then it will be pension. And then it'll be credit determination. And there just is that time when everybody has to see-this is one where we just gotta stand our ground."
These recent developments confirm what we wrote in Internationalism 143, that the NYC Transit workers' strike of December 2005 marked in the US the entrance to a "...period in which the class struggle will once more be at the center stage of the social situation during which the bourgeoisie's policies of austerity and war will not go unchallenged." The recent and present struggles are a manifestation that this new period is beyond simply a ‘beginning'; it is now maturing, and the perspective can only be that of extension and strengthening of the confrontations and of class consciousness. As we said above, this is an international development in which the workers in the US are full participants.
Today in the belly of the beast, the workers' struggles are demystifying the bourgeoisie's campaign about the ‘superiority' of American-style capitalism and how it benefits the workers' standard of living. This is a ‘gain' that goes beyond an immediate victory on the defensive terrain, because it teaches the workers that the present struggles are only a preparation for a much bigger struggle against this dying system. The working class is undergoing a tremendous reflection and the dynamics of its struggle show a growing maturation of the understanding of the need for solidarity and the impasse of capitalism. This dynamic will deepen and extend as the workers engage in the struggles and become more and more conscious of the task their class has to carry out. A new period has opened up toward important confrontations between the two leading classes in our society. Our responsibility is not to stand and watch but to intervene to help the class advance its understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it. Ana 1/5/08