In the last issue of WR we carried an article on the railway strike in France. This strike took place against a background of growing discontent and agitation in numerous sectors of the working class. This movement was particularly significant in that it has developed during the Balkans war and despite the campaigns of the ruling class to strengthen the ideology of "national unity" around"national unity" around the war effort. In early June, there was a further expression of this combative mood in the working class: a spontaneous strike around the question of safety in the metro, which rapidly spread to the whole of the metro system and the urban railway in Paris, and also to transport workers in Marseilles and Lyon. Although quickly isolated by the unions, the speed of the workers' reaction was above all an expression of an exasperation with deteriorating wages and working conditions that is common to wide layers of the working class.
In May as well, nurses throughout Denmark came out on strike for higher wages despite the nurses' union recommending acceptance of the government's offer. The government was obliged to pass a new law to make this strike illegal and force the nurses back to work in a very angry frame of mind. Schoolteachers were also striking for wage increases at the same time.
Below, we publish two articles written by our comrades in America which give further evidence of this slow, uneven but real revival of the international class struggle. Of particular significance is the article on the New York transport workers which gives a concrete example of how minorities of workers today are beginning to pose some very profound questions about the nature and role of the trade unions. Such developments are harbingers of the much wider and more conscious class movements thahat are on the agenda for the future.
Despite 'war fever', workers defend themselves against capitalist attacks
The New York City municipal unions have stepped up their campaign to re-establish their credibility in the wake of scandals that have rocked municipal trade unions (we originally reported on this in Internationalism 106, publication of the ICC in the US). A major corruption scandal involving a fraudulent ratification vote for the last contract had thrown District Council 37 (a cluster of local unions in the huge New York City public sector workforce) into turmoil. Getting rid of the most blatant corruption was important for the ruling class, in order to give the appearance that the unions could be relied upon to defend the workers interests.
Of course this changed nothing in the fundamental role of the unions and their relationship to the government. It was all simply a ploy to pre-empt the danger of workers taking the struggles into their own hands in the period ahead.
Following the scandal, the newly installed DC 37 reform leader joined with leaders of the Teachers and Hospital Workers unions to call for a massive rally at City Hall on May 12th. This demonstration was designed to lay the groundwork for union negotiations in the autumn for new city ity contracts. In this sense the rally did not express a dynamic directly stemming from the workers themselves, but rather a move by the unions to prepare the basis for their control of the struggle in the months to come. This was especially necessary because the last corrupt contract saddled workers with a two year wage freeze, and anger is running high among municipal workers, and a major effort was necessary to convince workers to put confidence in the unions.
The demonstration mobilized a massive crowd, estimated at 25,000-50,000 participants, making it the largest such demonstration in more than 15 years. While it was firmly controlled by the unions, it was clear that the workers were angry and ready to fight. The belt-tightening rhetoric of the past few years seems to have lost credibility with the news of a 2 billion dollar budget surplus for the city government.
The demonstration occurred right in the midst of the NATO war in the Balkans. This is significant. Far too often in the past, the working class has been intimidated or cajoled into putting aside their needs and struggles, and sacrifice for the 'good of the nation.' It was clear that the thousands of workers who demonstrated that afternoon had no hesitation to express their need for wage increases even while the nation was at war. Even more significantly, workers at the rally were anxious to accept the ICC's leafletet denouncing the war, many who had passed by came back to ask for copies when they learned it was an anti-war leaflet. These workers saw no contradiction between a leaflet against the war and their demands for higher wages.
Another aspect of the current campaign to spruce up the municipal unions involves stepped-up base unionist activities. Left union bureaucrats with close links to the Association for Union Democracy, a group with social democratic roots, have pushed for greater democracy in the unions, seeking to put new, more 'radical' leadership in place. Their message is that workers can't win unless there are truly democratized unions. This group includes two of the 'honest' local union presidents within DC 37 who helped to expose the corruption by the former council leadership.
A year ago such elements organized the Committee for Real Change (CRC) within DC 37. Lately, they have expanded the group citywide, to include all 'reform' minded bureaucrats and some leftists, such as those affiliated with the International Socialist Organization (the US affiliate of the British SWP). Thus we see that leftists, who are at the extreme left of the ruling class, are preparing to play a back-stop role when workers start to see the manipulative role the 'reform' unionists will pursue.
The CRC is completely following behind official union leadership. It posed nd nothing different from the union leaders in regard to the May 12th demo. The CRC just focused on mobilizing workers to go to the demo. In the future it is possible it that will pose more of an alternative, perhaps as ready-made convenors of a so-called 'co-ordination' should the struggle break out in the open .
The CRC's link to the social democratic Association for Union Democracy (AUD) is instructive of how manipulative the ruling class can be. In June 1998, the AUD organized a conference where reform-minded local presidents within DC 37 decided to organize the CRC. This was before the DC 37 corruption scandal broke. In January of this year, the AUD organized another conference, attended by people from as many as 17 different local unions, from a broad range of public sector categories. This newly expanded CRC held a meeting, attended by about 200 people on the Friday night prior to the City Hall demo. It was not a real workers meeting. Just a lot of speeches by reform officials, with 15 minutes allowed for discussion at the end, after most people had left.
The rise of 'militant' new union leaders in the public sector in NY is therefore the fruit of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the AUD and assorted leftists, not a reflection of ferment within the proletariat. These new union leaders are being put in place to help the ruling class manipulate the growing discontent amomong the proletariat and contain the struggles which will inevitably arise.
New York transport workers grapple with union question
In late May about 25 New York City transit workers were sitting in the waiting room of a transit authority medical clinic and talking about the upcoming contract fight. It was a just a week after the big demonstration at City Hall, where an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 municipal workers had participated in a union-called rally, and just two days after the transit union announced that it was demanding a 30% raise over three years in the new contract next November, and threatening a strike (which would be illegal) on New Year's Eve (which coming on the eve of the new millennium would be sure to isolate strikers). The workers' discussion was quite animated and polarized around two guys who argued opposing views on a key issue facing not only transit workers, but all workers: the union question. For over two hours. the discussion focused on the union, good or no good.
An older worker defended the union, insisting that workers had to go to the union meetings and participate in union activities. In general people jumped on him for this view. Several women talked negatively about the union, how it never helped workers. The main opponent of the union was a younger wr worker who said that the union leaders are like management, and we can't trust them. He said they are corrupt and the question is not to change union leaders, because anyone who gets elected will become the same.
One woman talked about the necessity for workers to get together to discuss what to do about the contract. One worker suggested taking the union money and renting Madison Square Garden for a big meeting. An older worker said he had been active in the union in the past and was ashamed of what he had done. He described how the executive board had manipulated the union meetings, and explained that union meetings mean nothing, that everything is decided elsewhere.
The union defender would not be swayed. He insisted that there was no alternative to the union, but the younger worker attacked again. He said the solution was to dismantle the union. If you have a building that is rotten, you don't repair it, you blow it up, he said. Then there was a debate about going on strike and fears related to the penalties of the Taylor law, a New York State law prohibiting public sector strikes, which was used in 1980 after the last transit strike to fine workers two days pay for every day on strike. Again the question was raised about renting Madison Square Garden, but the young guy said we don't need to do that. He said we have different shops where people can meet and elect two or ththree guys and send them as delegates and to get together. A woman worker suggested that the people in the shops could write down what they wanted the delegates to say.
This episode offers a glimpse of the process by which the working class comes to consciousness, how it grapples with the meaning of its past experiences in struggle and draws out lessons for the future. Even without the intervention of revolutionaries, the workers who discussed those two hours in that waiting room clearly raised the question of the anti-proletarian nature of the unions, the need to push them aside, to take the struggle into their own hands, to create their own autonomous organs of struggle, with elected, mandated delegates. The bourgeois media tells us there is no such thing as the class struggle anymore, that everyone is middle class, except for the very poor. Communism, they tell us is dead and gone. But the discussion that happened that day in May is a clear sign that the perspective for the future is still one of class confrontation.