Mon May 27, 2024
May 27, 2024

The Road Ahead for the U.S. Labor Movement

By ERNIE GOTTA

The working class in the U.S. faces many challenges. Working people are living through a difficult but dynamic moment when hundreds of thousands have been inspired by the United Auto Workers’ strike, the Writers Guild of America and actors’ union (SAG-AFTRA) strikes, and organizing at Amazon, Starbucks, and in the auto industry. At the same time, there is a growing sector of the working class that is starting to organize around political issues like Palestine, climate change, and LGBTQ rights.

The combination of these economic struggles and broader political struggles is slowly raising expectations about what is possible when the working class takes action.

With few exceptions, the fight between the bosses and the working class has not broken out into the open. Small workplace actions, new organizing drives, and community fightbacks are happening every day but not really reported. On the other hand, the bigger and more visible strikes—like UAW, WGA, SAG, etc.—are taking place in a very calculated top-down way. The bureaucracy still maintains control of the unions, and there is no class-struggle left-wing leadership. The union bureaucracy has had moments of moving in a progressive direction but ultimately remains tied to the Democratic Party and therefore acts as a conservative force on the working class as a whole.

Openings exist for socialists and militant workers to engage in a meaningful way with the working class to show the potential of a fighting, politicized, and democratically run trade-union movement.

A revitalized union movement must take up the fights that include Black, immigrant, women, LGBTQ, and Indigenous communities. Ultimately, the labor movement must envision the conversion of polluting and war industries for a sustainable economy that puts the needs of humanity and the earth above the bosses’ profits.

Industry and the working class

War, genocide, austerity, inflation, and the rise of the far right are all phenomena that the working class has to deal with. The global competition between imperialist powers has created new situations that every class-conscious fighter is trying to understand.

One area of competition is between the U.S. and China around the need to produce semiconductors for technological development. Biden’s CHIPS Act was an attempt to give U.S. companies a leg up on international competition. However, the economic situation, especially in production, will likely face many difficulties. Financial analysts at Deloitte write, “In 2024, manufacturers are expected to face economic uncertainty, the ongoing shortage of skilled labor, lingering and targeted supply chain disruptions, and new challenges spurred by the need for product innovation to meet company-set net-zero emissions goals. Deloitte’s analysis of Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data reveals that the manufacturing sector was in contraction for most of 2023.”

While the U.S. is still competing for access to resources globally, there is also a turn inward, where massive deposits of rare minerals have been discovered in Wisconsin and Arkansas. Alex Trent writes about Wisconsin in an article posted on MSN.com, “In an exciting development, the United States might be on its way to exceeding global leader China as the top extractor of rare minerals. A recent discovery of a huge cache of minerals has the potential to upset the world economy in a big way.”

These discoveries are likely to create new industrial mining operations that will feed U.S. production needs in an attempt to circumvent supply-chain shortages that have led to 15 straight months of contraction in manufacturing. The situation may look different, depending where you are in the U.S. In some areas, especially in the South and Midwest, there are new industrial zones developing, but overall, most reports show production remaining on a slow downward slope that includes layoffs and lower inventory.

Yet manufacturing remains central to the U.S. economy. The National Institute for Standards and Technology reported in 2021, “Manufacturing contributed $2.3 trillion to U.S. GDP, amounting to 12.0% of total U.S. GDP. Including direct and indirect (i.e., purchases from other industries) value added, manufacturing contributed an estimated 24% of GDP.”

The crisis of the capitalists and their drive to maintain high rates of profit has had a profound effect on the working class in the U.S. The work has become more precarious, and the return of child labor in factories in places like Alabama have allowed companies to maintain profit in difficult times. A Dec. 16 Reuters article states, “At a plant owned by Hwashin America Corp., a supplier to the two-car brands in the south Alabama town of Greenville, a 14-year-old Guatemalan girl worked this May assembling auto body components, according to interviews with her father and law enforcement officials. At plants owned by Korean auto-parts maker Ajin Industrial Co, in the east Alabama town of Cusseta, a former production engineer told Reuters he worked with at least 10 minors. And six other ex-employees of Ajin said they, too, worked alongside multiple underage laborers.”

If you couple manufacturing with the supply chain, we can see how workers in these sectors are central to the U.S. economy. These workers can potentially play a central role in the class struggle by shutting down production and disrupting the bosses’ profits. For example, on the manufacturing side, the UAW strike in 2023 had a big impact. Shivansh Tiwary and Raechel Thankam Job write in an October 2023 Reuters article, “Businesses ranging from airlines to auto parts makers are starting to feel the heat from the month-long strike by hourly workers at the Detroit Three automakers, with analysts warning that the financial hit could increase if the walkout does not end soon. With the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike entering its 36th day, and the total economic cost pegged at more than $7 billion, companies are counting the cost of lost revenue amid an uncertain economy and persistent inflation.”

On the supply chain side of industry there was a deep concern over the 2023 Teamster negotiations with UPS leading to a strike. Chris Isidore wrote in CNN Business, “UPS isn’t just another large shipping company. It carries 6% of America’s gross domestic product in its trucks. It also plays a central role in the smooth movement of goods the economy depends upon, feeding supply chains that are only recently recovering from disruptions that drove up prices in the past couple years.”

UAW and Teamsters

In 2022 there was a lot of hope that the labor movement was taking a decidedly different course. The Labor Notes conference in 2022 was massive. Nearly 4000 union members attended to hear new Teamster President Sean O’Brien talk about how the Teamsters were going to take on UPS and win a historic contract. O’Brien was flanked by Democratic Party Senator Bernie Sanders and Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, who both spoke about taking on the billionaire class. UAW members gathered to discuss the upcoming Big Three negotiations and the slate of reform candidates under Shawn Fain.

Today, those feelings have become more complicated, and the labor movement is experiencing divisions. As a result, all types of contradictions are exposing the real nature of the so called “reform” leaderships under Shawn Fain in the UAW and Sean O’Brien in the Teamsters.

In general, Sean O’Brien and Shawn Fain raised the expectations of workers, won some necessary gains after years of concessionary contracts, but at the same time failed to wage the type of fight necessary to damage the corporate interests. In this way they actually reduced the impact on industry and made the Democratic Party look supportive of the workers’ fight. How did they do this?

1) Fain prevented a complete shutdown of the auto industry by only calling out a portion of the worker force, saving billions of dollars for the Big Three.

2) The Teamsters negotiated a contract at UPS without going on strike, which also saved the capitalist class billions of dollars.

3) Both union leaders managed the negotiation period so as to avoid a massive embarrassment for Democratic Party President Joe Biden as he headed into an election year. The UAW even worked to revive Joe Biden’s image as the “most pro-union president,” having him walk the picket line following the Biden administration’s sellout of railroad workers the previous year.

This “pro-union” image of Joe Biden would not last long, as the Israeli invasion of Gaza shifted the narrative of what “Genocide Joe“ was really all about.The UAW, for example, has a growing amount of rank-and-file Palestine solidarity activists. Labor for Palestine and the Arab Caucus of the UAW have played an important role. The pressure from the ranks pushed the union leadership to call for a ceasefire on Dec. 1, 2023. However, by Jan. 24, the UAW endorsed “Genocide Joe“ Biden for president and silenced pro-Palestinian supporters at the announcement, dragging at least one person waving a Palestinian flag from the audience.

Union power?

The Teamsters and UAW combined represent 1.7 million workers. Their ability to threaten the U.S. economy and win gains for the working class points to the urgent need for these unions to organize non-union industrial workers. The Teamsters are continuing to organize workers in Amazon facilities across the U.S. Meanwhile, the conditions in auto factories and perceived success of the UAW strike have opened the possibility for a sweeping organizing drive across the auto industry by the UAW. The union has announced organizing efforts are well underway at Volkswagen in Tennessee, Hyundai in Alabama, and Tesla in Fremont, Calif.

New organizing victories at Amazon will be increasingly essential for Teamsters, as they will have to beat back a wave of automation that threatens the inside part-time workers at UPS. In November 2023, UPS opened a warehouse where robots outnumber workers 15 to 1. Thomas Black wrote in a November 2023 Fortune article, “‘It’s a linchpin of our strategy,’ Bill Seward, president of UPS Supply Chain Solutions, said of the automated space. ‘It’s important to be able to deliver best-in-class cost and best-in-class service for your customers.’”

While the Teamsters leadership failed to prepare workers to struggle over the question of automation in the last contract, for UPS workers the answer should now be clear. There needs to be an open and democratic discussion on how workers can beat back automation and the company’s plan to take more profits by laying off workers. There needs to be a fight in the union to raise the demand for a reduction in work hours with no loss in pay.

As climate change disproportionately impacts an increasing number of working-class and oppressed communities, unions, feeling the pressure from the rank and file, are beginning to use collective bargaining to win some modest demands around the issue. The U.E. Wabtec strike for Green locomotives and the demands raised for air conditioning in UPS trucks are just two examples.

The development of Palestine solidarity within organized labor has created a serious upsurge as well as a level of divisiveness not seen since the Standing Rock struggle. As is the case with the UAW, other union leaderships are being pushed by rank-and-file activists to take a pro-Palestine position, but they generally end up with weak “ceasefire” positions. This is most clearly expressed by Labor for Ceasefire, a coalition of unions like UE, APWU, UAW, Assoc. of Flight Attendants, etc., representing over 9 million workers. This is both a response to pressure from their base but also an attempt to corral the movement into the Democratic Party, which is trying to scramble to find a formula to co-opt the broader movement.

Palestine solidarity activists need to push forward and continue to raise demands that can unify workers and the broader movement. Demands that include “End U.S. Aid to Israel” or “End Israeli Apartheid.” There is a very important layer of the labor movement that is looking to go beyond the ceasefire question. Labor activists and journalists like Jeff Schuhrke have written important articles that highlight the need to convert the war industries to sustainable and peaceful production. Schuhrke writes, “Even if conversion appears to be a distant horizon, embracing the idea could have an immediate impact on organizing, giving activists grounds on which to defend anti-war initiatives—such as attempts to divest from Israeli apartheid—that are frequently shut down in the name of weapons industry workers.”

It is significant that the UAW Arab Caucus is calling for the union to go beyond the ceasefire demand. They published a letter to UAW President Fain in Mondoweiss reclaiming the militant history of Arab workers in the UAW who walked off the job in Detroit in 1973 for the liberation of Palestine. The Arab Caucus writes, “We aim to realize the dream of the original UAW Arab caucus, which undertook a wildcat strike in November 1973 in Dearborn, demanding the UAW divest from Israeli bonds.”

The letter also states, “We need you to meet with us now—you must take action to translate the UAW’s ceasefire declaration to practical interruption of the weapons which our UAW siblings are making, sending to Israel, and which are being used to kill our families.”

A mass labor party

The 2024 election between Biden and Trump creates an ideal moment to raise the demand for class independence and use the example of building an independent labor party.

The working class in the U.S. has never had a mass independent party of their own. The majority of workers have been trapped in a vicious cycle of supporting one capitalist party or another. Now is the time to explain how the labor movement can galvanize our forces in the political arena against the bosses’ political parties.

Imagine what would be possible if unions like the Teamsters, UAW, UNITE HERE, and SEIU used their resources toward an independent working-class political campaign instead of gifting them to the Democratic Party and Genocide Joe Biden! In a 2021 article about the Georgia Senate race, I wrote, “UNITE HERE alone mobilized over 1700 workers and staffers to knock on 3 million doors and dialed 10 million phone numbers for Joe Biden. The union mobilized in key electoral battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, where it claimed to have knocked on 575,000 doors.”

To make this a reality, socialists and left-wing labor activists must put their focus on building what we often refer to as a class-struggle left-wing inside organized labor. This current in the workers movement must be rooted in the class struggle, committed to organizing the unorganized, especially in the South, and showing a commitment to deepening the political consciousness of workers everywhere.

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles