Capitalism's entry into a new phase of recession has not spared USA, chief of the western bloc and the world's premier economic power. Difficulties are growing inexorably for US capital. And the changes taking place at the head of the executive, through the media campaign about ‘Irangate' which aims to prepare a successor for Reagan while keeping the Republican party in government and the Democratic Party in opposition, reveal the American bourgeoisie's preoccupations about the need to impose brutal austerity. And, as in Western Europe and the rest of the world, the American proletariat is not prepared to accept this austerity without reacting. Even if, owing to its historical characteristics, the proletariat in the USA has not yet developed its struggles to the levels reached in Western Europe over the last few years, it has shown a real combativity in a whole series of strikes in different sectors. These struggles are an integral part of the present international wave of class combats.
We are publishing here the part dealing with the class struggle from a report on the American situation adopted by ICC's US section in December 1986 (to obtain the complete text in English, write to Internationalism's address). The events in the months after this report was written have only confirmed perspective drawn out in it; a strengthening of the bourgeoisie's attacks and of the workers' response to them.
The class struggle
The working class in the US is a full participant in the third wave of class struggles which began in September ‘83. Each phase of the current wave has had a very quick echo in the struggles of American workers. Any lagging behind by American workers relates to depth, not timeliness. The struggles here have not reached the same magnitude as in Western Europe, but have demonstrated the same tendencies and characteristics, proving once again that the proletarian struggle is international. Whatever differences in degree that are manifest in the US primarily reflect the strength of American capitalism and its position as chief of the western bloc, and the inexperience and lack of maturity of the working class here. These peculiarities only heighten the international significance for the world proletariat of the struggles in the US.
The third phase has had three discernable phases.
First phase: began in September ‘83 in Belgium with the public sector strike, showed from the outset a tendency towards extension - spreading to other sectors as workers saw the need to avoid isolation - and also a high degree of simultaneity of struggle in different industries and different countries. This phase quickly manifested itself in the US in the strike at Greyhound, in which workers fought back against threatened wage cuts. When management attempted to emulate the example of the Reagan administration in the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981 by hiring scabs to replace strikers, militant workers from other industries rushed to show their solidarity in demonstrations. These demonstrations, called by the central union councils in city after city, often posed the possibility of breaking free from union control and reflected how workers had learned from the experience of the air controllers. Mass demonstrations, rallies in the streets, called early by the unions under pressure from the workers soon became common. While the preceding months had seen harbingers of the third wave, in strikes at Iowa Beef, which involved violent confrontations with police, Phelps Dodge in Arizona, AT&T Continental, and Chrysler earlier in ‘83, the Greyhound strike was a qualitative step forward, as for the first time workers outside the specific contract dispute sought to participate directly in the struggle. This quest for active solidarity did not take the form of joining the strike around their own demands, as it did in the Belgium public sector strike in September ‘83. But it clearly reflected the same process, as the first steps were taken to crack the stranglehold of union-nurtured corporatism. Workers who were not employed by Greyhound fought alongside the strikers, blocking buses, facing arrest, and a construction worker died trying to block a bus in Boston.
This first phase continued to echo events in Europe as several thousand workers in Toledo joined strikers in attacking a scab-run AP auto parts plant in May ‘84, and fought a pitched battle with police that lasted through the night. The violent confrontations and Phelps Dodge, the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) strike against wage cuts despite the company's near-bankruptcy, the hospital strike in NY, and the GM strike which spread as an unofficial wildcat strike to 13 militant plants across the country, and the New York City hotel workers' strike in June ‘85 in which workers took to the streets, marching from hotel to hotel in midtown, blocking traffic and striking a responsive chord with workers in the garment center, were some of the notable episodes in this first phase of the third wave of class struggle which demonstrated the growing resistance to wage cuts and other concessions and the tendency towards solidarity.
The second phase began in late 1985 and was characterized by a dispersal of struggles, as the bourgeoisie sought to side step the tendencies towards extension and active solidarity within the working class by switching to a strategy of dispersed attacks, picking workers off one company, one factory, one sector at a time. The unions no longer waited for pressure to build for solidarity demonstrations and marches but took pre-emptive action announcing plans were underway immediately for such forms of struggle, short circuiting spontaneous action. Of course the unions consciously sabotaged these demonstrations. To combat the explosive danger posed by the tendency towards extension, the unions increasingly pushed the false strategy of "battles of attrition" - the long strike. Court injunctions restricting mass pickets, solidarity walkouts, and other valuable weapons of the workers became routine weapons used by union, management and government to derail workers' struggles. Where the situation was so volatile that the traditional union tactics were no longer enough to control and defeat the workers, the bourgeoisie began increasingly to rely upon the base unionists.
The strategy of dispersed attacks and the growing reliance on base unionism led to a dispersal of militant struggles, in which workers showed great combativity, a deepening resistance against cuts, and even a tendency to strain at the bit of union control, but remained isolated. The central struggles in this phase included: the Wheeling-Pittsburgh steel strike, where workers struck against a bankrupt firm's reorganization plan; Hormel where the bourgeoisie relied upon base unionists to overcome the tendencies towards extension, keep control, and set up the defeat; Watsonville cannery strike, where the first steps towards self-organization were taken by a mass workers' assembly and an elected strike committee, only to be recuperated by the bourgeoisie as base unionists captured control of the strike committee and diverted the workers towards "union reform", eventually taking over control of the local union; the Chicago Tribune printers' strike, which despite dragging out. in a dead-end "battle of attrition" exploded into a tremendous demonstration of working class solidarity in January 1986 as 17,000 workers turned out hours early for a union called demonstration and fought cops and tried to block scab deliveries; the strike by TWA flight attendants, in which the strikers refused to accept drastic wage cuts and initially elicited massive support from mechanics and ground crew workers who refused to cross their picket lines. But the union was successful in using a court injunction to break this solidarity, isolate and help defeat the flight attendants.
The third phase began in spring of ‘86. With the deepening of the crisis and the onset of the new global recession, the bourgeoisie has less and less room for maneuver, less opportunity to delay its attacks on the working class.
Increasingly the bourgeoisie is under pressure to give up dispersed attacks and switch to a frontal attack on the entire working class - an all out austerity attack. Internationally, the third phase first appeared in Scandinavia as workers fought back against government austerity programs in early spring. This new phase in class struggle reached its highest point thus far in Belgium in late spring, when the workers' militancy and combativity was matched by a conscious effort to seek unity in struggle. In the US the first hints of the changing situation could be seen around the same time, in early spring in the wildcat strike at General Electric which spread to four factories in Massachusetts, and the strike by Maine railroad workers, which soon spread across New England as other rail workers displayed an active solidarity. But it was in the municipal workers' strikes in Philadelphia and Detroit in July and August where the onset of the third phase clearly announced itself in the US, just two months after the events in Belgium.
In Philadelphia workers used mass picketing to shutdown city hall, refused to let the unions use jurisdictional divisions to break the unity of the struggle, didn't let an initial court injunction against mass picketing derail the struggle, and eventually decided to violate a court injunction to return to work. Ultimately, the unions were successful in using the city's threat to fire all the strikers to break the strike because the workers didn't yet understand that the way to fight such tactics is to spread the strike further, bringing more workers from other sectors into the fray.
In Detroit the conscious efforts to achieve unity reached an even higher level, as city workers in such blue collar categories as sanitation and transit workers, who were not directly involved in the immediate contract dispute between the city and clerical workers maintained a militant unity, resisting all efforts by union and management to divide them. Even though the blue collar workers never directly joined the strike around their own demands, their militant solidarity gave the strike its real strength, and permitted the strikers to beat back the city's austerity attacks for the moment - showing clearly that struggle pays, in successfully resisting the ruling class offensive and in the ability to learn lessons from previous struggles and deepen consciousness. The same tendencies could be seen in the hotel workers' strike in Atlantic City in the autumn of ‘86 where the workers reclaimed the street demonstration as a powerful weapon of the class struggle, rampaging through the streets, blocking tourist traffic and buses transporting scabs, and confronting police for nearly two days before a new contract was hastily ironed out.
The same tendencies towards quickly seeking conscious unity, ignoring court orders, taking to the streets, and avoiding a "battle of attrition" mentality can be seen currently in the hospital workers' strike against the Kaiser‑Permanente chain of medical clinics in California against management's attempts to install a two-tier wages system which would pay newly hired workers 30% less. Mass picketing quickly forced five other unions representing other employees to officially join the strike. Even the registered nurses with a history of corporatist and ‘professional' disdain for other hospital workers (attributable to bourgeois ideology), violated court injunctions and union instructions to stay at their jobs, and instead displayed their solidarity not only by respecting picket lines and staying off the job, but by actually joining the struggle - hundreds of them participating actively in daily picketing.
In identifying the crucial new tendencies that have emerged in the third phase of class struggle, we do not mean to imply that all struggles necessarily demonstrate the same strengths and developments. Clearly the US bourgeoisie with its great economic strength still has the ability to disperse its attacks - though to a lesser degree - and will do so whenever possible. And as the example of the USX steel strike demonstrates, they have the capacity to orchestrate the isolation of struggles and sell the ideology of the strike of attrition. Nevertheless, we must insist that the general tendency favors the development of struggles in which workers consciously seek to unify their struggles and take up an active solidarity.
Given the specificities of the American economy, with its large private sector, and the more indirect manner in which government austerity plans are forced upon the private sector, it is in the public sector workforce where conditions most favor the development of struggles in the short term. However, as the new rash of layoffs and plant shutdowns indicate, resistance in the private workforce will not lag too far behind. With contracts coming in 1987 effecting over 600,000 public sector workers and an additional 450,000 auto workers, a real potential for major struggles is posed, as workers resist the onslaught. The rapid growth in unemployment poses the potential for the unemployed to play an increasingly important role in the class struggle as we have seen in certain countries in Europe. The shutdown of more and more plants following years of union-engineered concessions which were supposed to guarantee a secure future and the layoffs at companies turning huge profits will prompt the growth of militant resistance. The growing pressure on governments and companies to attack workers will lead to greater simultaneity of struggles and create increasingly favorable circumstances for the tendency for struggles to unify against the united attacks.
The American working class' participation in the third phase demonstrates clearly that the same process of the maturation of consciousness we have seen in struggles in Europe has taken hold here as well. Workers in America increasingly understand the serious nature of what is at stake in the class struggle. While the number of strikes in 1986 rose dramatically compared with 1985 (which set a record for the lowest number of major strikes since World War Two), it is not anywhere near the level it was in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, But what is more important than the number of strikes is the quality of the struggles that occur in terms of the seriousness of the issues at stake and in the strides the class is making in learning the lessons of past struggles. Fifty per cent of the stoppages today are lockouts, undertaken by management to push through its austerity, its wage cuts, its work rule changes. Workers know that when they go on strike today that they face a real battle, that their jobs are literally at stake, that the danger that scabs will replace them is very real. The bourgeoisie uses its media to try to demoralize workers about the prospects of struggle, focusing on the defeats of the air traffic controllers in ‘81, of the Hormel workers, and the TWA flight attendants - all of whom lost their jobs.
But workers have not been scared away from struggle by these defeats. Instead they are beginning to draw the lessons of these defeats and search for the unity in struggle which is their greatest weapon. At Hormel, at Watsonville, at TWA, at USX, the unions imposed the strategy of the long strike that set the workers up for defeat. But at Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlantic City and Kaiser-Permanente, the workers moved quickly to broaden their struggle.