The Class Struggle In The US: What Point Has It Reached? How To Go Forward?

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It is often said that the history of the class struggle in America for the last four decades, that is, since the late 1960’s, is the history of an almost uninterrupted wave of defeats and rollback.  Indeed, looking across the Atlantic toward Europe, and south, and east, we would have to make the same conclusion. This is perhaps more spectacularly so in the case of Greece, where in the last year alone six general strikes have been called by the unions, yet not even this has stopped the onslaught of brutal austerity measures in that country.  To come back to America, over the course of the last four decades the decline in the standard of living of the American worker has been relentless, quite brutal, and undeniable.  In the course of the last four decades, the ruling class has imposed a series of very deep cuts and changes to the entire apparatus of exploitation needed to secure the reiteration of the process of capitalist production: from cuts to education and its increasing costs, to cuts to real wages, to the increase in the work week and the intensification of exploitation, to the erosion of employer-sponsored health care benefits, all the way down to the more recent practice of creating new tiers for new hires in which traditional defined benefit pensions are shifted to 401k-type schemes. The working class has often put up very intense struggles and it has also gone through somewhat lengthy periods of relative quiet, all of which we have written about in this press.  However,  its attempts at defending its living and working conditions, attempts at times very bold and courageous and carried out notwithstanding the threat of losing one’s job, have not succeeded, for the most part, in deterring the ruling class from proceeding with what have become ever more brutal, more frequent, and more frontal attacks. The frontal nature of the more recent attacks, and those to come, are without a doubt a reflection of the economic impasse in which the bourgeoisie finds itself.

Is it then correct to conclude that the working class has lost its battle against capitalism? Should we accept  that we are at the point where the reversal of the balance of forces in favor of the working class is no longer possible?  Are the struggles that the working class still engages in a sign of its waning, a reflection of a slow, but irreversible process toward all-out defeat?  Does all of this mean that the working class is no longer the social force in society that has the potential and historic mission to destroy capitalist relations of exploitation and give birth to a communist world?  Yet, as quiet as it's kept, the working class in the United States continues to wage struggles and there are some signs of reflection and strategizing in the willingness to fight for a younger generation of workers as this has become a subject of capital’s particularly vicious attacks. Despite the weakness and lack of confidence workers feel - which gives the unions a relatively free hand to run the struggles - workers don't exactly trust the unions either. 

We do not think that the working class has exhausted its potential.  We think that it is going through, and has for some time, a very difficult process of re-discovering its class identity and confidence, of understanding how to confront the class enemy on its own class terrain, and of transforming the lessons and defeats of the past into acquisitions that can be used as sign-posts for the struggles to come.  We think that the most decisive struggles for the fate of humanity have not been waged yet, and that the working class is still at the center of history and is a fundamental actor in its development.  But in order to have this conviction, we need a method of analysis and understanding.  We need to place the struggles of the class in a wide historical setting and assess the balance of forces between the two major classes in society not on the basis of the number of struggles waged and not even in terms of any temporary victory, or painful defeat.  A struggle can be massive and protracted without bringing to the class any fundamental theoretical, organizational gain and without helping the class to strengthen solidarity and class-identity, as in the recent examples from Greece.  On the other hand, a struggle which on a strictly economic level does not bring even the least of temporary relief,  can foster an important sense of self-identity and confidence, politically much more significant than a temporary economic victory - if any can still be obtained.  As the economic crisis that started in 2007-2008 continues unabated, it is particularly important that the class continues to develop its struggles with a new understanding of what is at stake, and that its self-identity and confidence be restored. 

The class struggle in the US: a brief summary of its context and of the bourgeoisie’s strategy

From 1989 to 2003 the working class globally went through a protracted reflux in its consciousness and combativeness, the result of the campaigns about the ‘end of communism’, and ‘the end of history’ unleashed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The first signs of the return of the class struggle were seen in Austria and France starting in 2003, and in the U.S. these struggles were echoed in the New York City MTA (transport) strike of 2005.  More struggles happened everywhere, with a significant increase in combativeness, and, most importantly, the emergence of intergenerational class solidarity.  In particular, the MTA strike of 2005 was waged in support of the younger generation of workers, for whom the MTA bosses had proposed a new tier with a reduced benefits package.  This went on until about the 2007 financial crisis, which, when it hit, created a momentary paralysis amongst workers at the point of production. In 2009 there were record lows of only 5 major work stoppages, after which there has been an uptick in the combativeness of the class, most notably with the mobilization of students and public sector workers in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011, which clearly linked itself to the movement of social protest going on in the Arab world.  Soon after, the Verizon strike involved 45,000 workers and then in the same year we saw the movements of protest of Occupy Wall Street, borrowing methods of struggle of the working class through the formation of the General Assemblies, but also going beyond bread and butter demands, opening up a space for a wider questioning of capitalism, of humanity’s future under it. A big component of the context of the struggles in the US has been the election campaign, which had a dampening effect on the class struggle, and which also gave ammunition to the unions against the working class.  The unions have made use of the union-busting posture of many Republicans and even some Democrats to rally the workers to their defense.  This proved somewhat problematic to do, especially in the case of the Chicago teachers’ strike of last September, which saw a Democratic mayor pitted against the teachers union, a stance that threatened to abort the unions’ usual work of mobilizing public sector workers votes in favor of the Democratic candidate.   Notwithstanding the deafening noise of the electoral campaign, disputes at the work place returned as early as the summer of 2012.

In New York City Con-Edison workers went on strike over changing pension plans for new hires.  The union decided to call the strike, but when the company asked for one week’s notice, the unions refused, and Con-Edison locked out the workers.  The whole campaign then turned to reinstating the workers who had been locked out, and the proposed changes to the contract receded in the background, until on the verge of a storm Governor Cuomo intervened by forcing Con-Ed to reinstate the workers.  This tactic has been utilized in the past, particularly during the Verizon strike: the union went on strike because of stalled negotiations.  Workers ultimately went back to work without a contract.

Attacks against the workers are being implemented even without contract negotiations.  In some cases, step increases linked to longevity have been frozen.  New budgets assume no raises for any number of years, when contracts for city workers already expired in some cases as long as four years ago.  Retired workers are not being replaced.  In New York State, a new tier for new hires at the Department of Education has been approved by the legislation of the state, without any contract negotiations.  The issue becomes one of getting the workers back to work or re-starting the negotiations, rather than talking about the new contract per se.  This is a strategy of the unions and the bourgeoisie to confront the older, more experienced workers who have shown on several occasions that the attacks against the young generation of workers only stimulate their willingness to struggle in the youngsters’ defense.  It seems clear that the ruling class, at least where the workers are more greatly concentrated and experienced, consciously tries to avoid a direct confrontation with the existing workforce because it has learned that the older generation of workers is in a different mood than  during the years of its reflux from 1989 to 2003.

This strategy has happened consistently enough to have become a pattern--whether it was a well thought out strategy at the beginning or whether the ruling class has learned from it.  It started with General Motors about four years ago with the creation of two tiers for different pension and salary plans.  After GM every company has tried to do the same thing.  This situation does add the element of demoralization to workers who have struggled - the Lockheed strike, which also was going on during the summer, went on for a couple months, also over the creation of a new tier for the next generation of workers. The strike ended in a terrible defeat for the workers, with all major concessions won by the bosses, including the provision about the new tier.  However, as it was apparent by the reactions of many Lockheed workers, workers are having a deeper reflection on the role of the unions.  This time, the union could not brag about its outcomes.

While the Lockheed strike was going on, janitors in Houston also walked out, followed by a number of other janitors in several cities across the country. Their demands were around wages and working conditions, and their struggle was successful.  But this was not at all thanks to the unions’ mobilization.  Indeed, their demands, even though they were on the class terrain, were very modest:  a wage increase to a little over $10 an hour is something that JPMorgan - who contracts out the janitors’ bosses - can afford, especially after four years of bad publicity!  This little victory by the Houston janitors poses a larger question:  what do the Lockheed workers think about seeing the janitors get a little bit while they've gotten nothing? Does it make them doubt their own strength or does it put union methods in question?  It is a terrible thing to have to go back to work having lost a struggle for one's posterity; however, this has not succeeded in inflicting a sense of defeat amongst the working class and it has not destroyed the sense of solidarity people feel.  In fact, while this strategy has been successful in the past, it is now resulting not as much in a sense of demoralization but in resentment about this strategy - the working class is starting to see that this is what is becoming the pattern. There's an attempt to recuperate the sense of solidarity that the bourgeoisie has tried to attack.  As we wrote before, this intergenerational solidarity is something that appeared clearly already in 2005 with the MTA workers’ strike.  This is an important dynamic that has the potential for an interesting development in the struggles to come.

That the workers doubt their own strength may not be all that negative after all, if they are able to turn that sense of doubt in a deeper reflection on how to struggle more effectively.  The reason the unions make such a deafening noise in cases of small victories is not simply to refurbish their own image, but specifically to try and sap the incipient questioning of union tactics among the larger, more experienced sectors of the working class.  The strategy is to isolate and wear down the larger workforces while showcasing small victories in less important and insecure sectors of the working class such as the janitors.

Also in the summer we saw the Palermo pizza workers strike over wages, benefits, and condition s of work.  The company fired more than 80 workers on pretense of a presumed immigration check by ICE at the same time as the unions were running a unionization campaign.  The company was ultimately forced by ICE to reinstate the fired workers.  This strike showed the mood of defiance the working class is getting in.  Even immigrant workers without papers showed they did not fear to struggle.  However, we should be cautious and not conclude from this that the working class is prepared to defend itself against the attacks of the repressive apparatus of the ruling class.  ICE - and Palermo - took a step back in the face of the angry complaints by the union, who pointed out that federal intrusion into illegal immigration - a vital source of cheap labor for small and medium-size companies like Palermo - risked sabotaging the drive to unionize immigrant workers, an important sector of the working class which the unions across the country have been courting in an attempt to shore up the dwindling numbers of their membership.  Again, this instance was showcased as a union victory.

Another component of the ruling class’ strategy is, in struggles where there are no gains to be won, long battles of attrition lock the workers in desperation and demoralization.  This has been the case of the Crystal Sugar workers strike, run by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, which is part of the AFL-CIO and which also represents the Hostess workers, 15,000 of whom have just recently been fired by the company after being locked out.  1,300 Crystal Sugar workers were locked out after a majority of its workers rejected a contract proposal three consecutive times.  The company hired replacement workers for the sugar beet season, and shows no intention of wanting to re-hire the fired workers, while the AFL-CIO is launching a boycott campaign to 'force Crystal Sugar to rehire its workers'.  In both instances, Crystal Sugar and Hostess, the lockout followed stalled negotiations and workers were drawn into a protracted battle of attrition. This is an example of how the unions mystify the workers on several accounts:

  1. By creating the illusion that under the decadence of capitalism and the most serious economic crisis in its history, it is still possible to wage struggles for immediate gains and improvements
  2. By isolating the workers in their company and fostering corporatism
  3. By posing as the guarantor of workers’ rights through the use of the boycott or reliance on the National Board of Labor Relations, which, when it is called to intervene and decide on the bosses’ favors, supports the unions by obscuring their responsibility in the workers’ defeat.   Isolated by the unions in the corporatist strait-jacket, workers cannot find a way to extend their struggles and their solidarity.

Unions may talk about unity.  During the Con-Ed strike in New York City, all the major unions came out.  Yet, at the Con-Ed pickets the union had posted a banner clearly reading: “At this time we are not addressing any other union’s grievances”, while workers belonging to a different union stood across the streets with signs that expressed their solidarity with the Con-Ed workers.   In a similar way, in the case of the janitors’ strike where the unions really conducted a national campaign of support, demonstrating with other workers, engaging in rolling strikes city by city, the Lockheed workers were totally isolated and not a word was said about them.  At the end, concessions are made behind the backs of the workers, not enshrined in the contracts. 

What assessment?  What is the way forward?

It is clear that the working class has not given up its fight.  Its combative mood under the most difficult historical conditions since the counterrevolution - a ferocious economic crisis, the threat of an environmental catastrophe, ever bloodier and more dangerous wars, the decomposition of the social fabric - can lay the foundations for even more combative struggles tomorrow.  The most fundamental dynamic that surfaces in all the struggles the working class in America has undertaken since 2005 with the MTA workers strike is an incipient development of class identity and solidarity which is apparent in the working class’ open willingness to fight on behalf of the next generation of workers.  Its potential to develop further is linked to a series of factors:  the bourgeoisie’s ability to manipulate and mystify the workers, the dynamic of the class struggle world -wide, the aggravation of the crisis.  The stakes are very high, but the decisive battles are yet to be fought.

The bourgeoisie is always very keen on spreading the idea among the working class that the class struggle does not pay, even that it is over.  Indeed, if we were to base ourselves on the statistics, trends, academic studies and the propaganda of the ruling class, we would be very hard placed in making an adequate and dispassionate assessment of where the class struggle is now, and worse placed yet in tracing its perspective.  This is because the bourgeoisie has an obvious interest in trying to destroy the working class sense of self-confidence and discredit the class’ own theory of history and its revolutionary project.  Our rulers dream of a proletariat without a vision.  For the class itself and its revolutionary minorities, though, the whole question about how to assess the class struggle, its history, its weaknesses, strengths, and perspectives is a very serious business that cannot be understood through statistics alone, by ignoring the historic context or though academic studies the aim of which is not to understand reality, but rather to mystify it.  The class and its revolutionary minorities must study and understand as carefully and objectively as possible the development of the class struggles in order to be able to see the underlying dynamics and tendencies, because their task is to help to orientate, to give a general line of march to their movement, to foster reflection and generate an understanding of how to move forward in the struggles to come.

The importance for the working class to develop and strengthen its own class identity, its confidence, and its solidarity cannot be overstated.  As the first exploited class in history that also has the potential to take humanity to the next level of historical development, the working class is in a unique and contradictory historical situation.  On one hand, capitalism itself has developed the productivity of labor necessary to make abundance - the freedom from necessity and the realm of communism - possible.  On the other hand, the unleashing of society’s productive potential at all levels, including, but not limited to, the economic level, cannot be concretized until capitalist relations of production are destroyed.  As an exploited class, the proletariat is constantly subjected to the pressure of bourgeois ideology and propaganda about the superiority of the capitalist system.  This includes the mystification of how wealth and value are created through the separation of the laborer from the means of production, the specialization of production, the piecemeal fashion in which production takes place, and also, very importantly, the expropriation of the producer’s ability to make decisions about how to produce, for which goals, and how to distribute production to the full benefit of all of society’s members.  In the chaos generated by the anarchic way capitalism produces - each capitalist entity blindly setting in motion tremendous human resources as it furiously seeks profit in an ever-shrinking market- the worker experiences the entire process of production as an incomprehensible, alien and alienating activity.  However, because it is only the proletariat that can produce value which capital transforms into profit, the worker inevitably becomes the target and victim of ferocious attacks against his own conditions of life and work.  The relations of capitalist production inevitably force the capitalist to attack, and the worker to defend himself. It is during this struggle that the worker can become aware of being part of a social class, not just an alienated member of society.  Historically, it is this confrontation against the exploitation by capital that has helped the class forge its own identity, understand the need for solidarity, and become attracted to the theory of communism.


November 22 2012


General and theoretical questions: 

Recent and ongoing: 


Analysis: Class Struggle in the US