We think that the recent mobilization in Wisconsin represent a further step forward in the development of the struggles that we saw starting around 2003. We think it is therefore necessary to develop a frame for understanding these recent developments. We will look at the struggles that started in 2003, paying attention in particular to the NYC Transit strike of 2005, and ask the question about how or whether the events in Wisconsin are any different. We hope this will give a better idea of the period we have entered and the perspectives for the future struggles.
The issue that pushed the US workers to take the path of struggle again was not, as in many European countries, the attack on pensions starting around 2002-2003, but rather the attack on health benefits. As we wrote in Internationalism 128, “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.”
As a result, in 2003 General Electric, sanitation workers in Chicago, transit workers in Los Angeles, 30,000 grocery store workers in Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, and then 70,000 grocery store workers in California struck. The significance of these strikes was the resurgence in combativeness they showed in contrast to, most notoriously, the UPS strike in 1997, which was essentially a union maneuver to recredibilize the image of the unions and strengthen capitalism’s shop floor presence—the unions—among the workers. It is important to show this contrast because it helps us understand the dynamic of the class struggle. Significantly, the struggles picked up in the context of the aggravation of the economic crisis and the myriads difficulties imposed by social decomposition. From 2003 to 2008, when the financial crisis shook world capitalism, increasingly the class came out struggling with a growing awareness of the stakes. Compared to the 1960’s, when the global economic crisis returned, and, with it, the class struggle, the struggles of the new millennium showed a loss of the illusions in the possibility for reforms that existed in the 60’s. A growing sense of uncertainty about the future accompanied a deepening questioning of capitalism itself. During this period, workers went on strike at great danger and risk of losing their jobs to strikebreakers, to company bankruptcy, to permanent disappearance of jobs, and risked incurring heavy penalties. The highest point reached by the struggles of the class in this period was the NYC transit workers strike of December 2005. The willingness to return to the path of struggle meant that the class was on the way to regain its own self-identity, demonstrated time and again by the echo these strikes had within the proletariat. In the early 1980’s, there was a tendency for workers to join the strikes of other workers, an essential step in the generalization and extension of the struggle, but the NYC transit strike left a legacy of a deeper, and more generalized, sense of solidarity in the class at large. This sense of solidarity was inspired by the courageous fight the transit workers waged against the establishment of a different tier for new hires, with much worse health and pension benefits. The transit workers’ solidarity with the young generation left a profound mark on the rest of the class, who responded in kind with many expressions of support. In 2006, when the young generation in France took to the streets consciously seeking to link up with workers and other sectors of the population, the bourgeoisie worldwide once again took note of this new development. In the US the bourgeoisie has been very aware of it, as shown by its repeated attempts at dividing workers among ‘older’ and ‘younger’, most infamously with the presently heating campaign against teachers contracts’ seniority clause, and in general by forcing contracts that increasingly reduce or extinguish the benefits for the new hires. This is both an expression of the crisis, but it is also a divisive tactic consciously pursued in an effort to divide the class among itself in the face of the efforts by the working class to forge its self-identity and strengthen its solidarity.
In 2008 the world financial crisis started to rock global capitalism. At first, the working class suffered a moment of panic and the bourgeoisie thought that the class’ hesitations as to whether and how to struggle would allow it to impose its austerity attack with impunity. Instead, the scale and scope of the attacks have only confirmed for the working class that the only way to defend its living and working conditions is by fighting back. The struggles in Greece, France, Portugal, Italy, Great Britain, Egypt, the Philippines, India, Turkey….the list is long-- don’t all have the same strength or development. What they do have in common though, is their roots in the present unprecedented depth of the economic crisis and the stubborn willingness to fight back. They also seem to pick up from where the struggles have been left in any particular country, only to pop up somewhere else even more massively and insistent. In the US too, the list of strikes and street demonstrations is long, with important mobilizations across the country, especially, but not only, among the public sector workers. On several occasions teachers have come out in the open even with walkouts. We have seen the mobilization of hospital nurses and factory workers at Mott, and the wildcat strike on the East Coast which briefly spread along the entire Eastern seaboard, to mention a few. More important than their numbers, though, is the quality of their nature. The most important in this sense has been the public sector workers mobilization in Wisconsin. It started at first totally in the class terrain of the defense of working and living conditions and against cuts to health and pension benefits, and it has gone beyond the point reached by the NYC Transit strike of 2005. The first important aspect to pay attention to about this mobilization is the fact that, contrary to the NYC Transit strike, it started as a walkout, outside of the union control, showing in this way the same characteristics we see in other recent struggles: there is an important tendency toward the spontaneity of the action that points in significant ways to the future possible development of the mass strike. These characteristics are focused on the issue of the re-appropriation of proletarian methods of struggle, as illustrated by:
• The extension of the struggle
• The spontaneity of the struggle
• The tendency not to be drawn into ‘battles of attrition’
• The tendency toward walk outs and work stoppages
• The active search for solidarity: intergenerational, with unemployed, underemployed, immigrants, retirees, students, across ‘professional’ boundaries
• The reliance on ‘the street’ as the public place where General Assemblies take form and where wide discussions happen around how to organize, what to do, with numerous examples of elections of delegates sent to other workers. This is a development that was not as widespread as in some European countries or as in Egypt, and it is also important to underline that the movement in Wisconsin was very quickly co-opted by the unions.
Notwithstanding the weaknesses, it is the overall tendency and characteristics of the movement which point to a new phase in the development of the struggles in the US, a phase with the same characteristics that belong to the struggles of the working class world-wide, inscribing the US proletariat entirely in the international picture.
The bankruptcy of capitalism brought out in the open by the financial crisis has forged a mood of defiance and indignation in an undefeated class. The conditions under which the class struggles today are doubtlessly very difficult, but the path it has taken toward the struggle is instilling in it a greater confidence and a sense of class identity that the class needed to recover. Today the conditions exist for its hesitations, defeats, and failures to be so many opportunities to forge an even deeper confidence in its strength and its ability to lead humanity out of the infernal chaos capitalism has plunged it in, to understand that it is indeed the only force in society capable of this gargantuan task. Following the mobilization in Wisconsin, the self-identity of the class can be strengthened as it drops its illusions about the state as the guarantor of its protection and about the unions as its defender. A result of this can be a greater reliance on and experience with self-organization, and the beginning of a distancing of itself from the stranglehold of the unions. As the class develops its combativeness, it can also develop the awareness that what it is engaged in, this class struggle, is not merely a defensive struggle on the economic terrain, but a political struggle against oppression, for the wrestling of power from the exploiters, and for the construction of a new world.