Wed Jul 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

Union organizing, fighting oppression, & class independence

By ERNIE GOTTA

As elections approach in the U.S., the electoral options for working people seem dismal. There is no denying the fact that the Democratic and Republican Parties represent the interests of the U.S. wealthy ruling class. One would think that the incoherence of President Joe Biden, alongside his support for genocide of the Palestinian people, and the buffoonery of former President Donald Trump, coupled with his xenophobia and racism, would be enough to expose the charade of the U.S. elections. However, there is still a lot of fear, confusion, and demoralization among the working class that leads people to support one candidate or the other. This reality is reinforced by the absence of a mass workers party or labor party built out of a revived, fighting, and democratic union movement.

Instead, the trade-union bureaucracy will try to achieve small gains through top-down organizing models that merely pay lip service to the rank and file. Ultimately, these same union leaders will keep the labor movement tied to the capitalist class, mostly through their relationship with the Democratic Party.

In many cases, the union leadership’s close relationship with the Democrats drives a section of the workers toward far-right wing ideas. Recent town hall type discussions in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters showed a large minority—or in some cases, a majority—of support for Donald Trump in some of the union locals. This may be one of the opportunistic reasons for why Teamster President Sean O’Brien accepted an invitation to speak at the Republican National Convention, much to the dismay of hundreds of thousands of members.

This article will also ask and attempt to answer the following questions: What is the state of the working class today? What role are the unions playing in the class struggle? How can the most class-conscious workers break their unions from the greedy genocidal parties of the capitalist class and build a class struggle left-wing?

Ups and downs for the working class

What does it mean for working people in the U.S. that for 12 straight months average hourly earnings have been greater than inflation? Are workers headed for an economic rebound to pre-pandemic levels? After all, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors has stated, “Recent trends, however, reveal that most of the ‘missing workers’ are back in the labor market. Overall labor force participation is back to its pre-pandemic forecasted level, and the closely-watched prime-age (25-54) labor force participation rate is now a tick above pre-pandemic levels.”

Many working people in the U.S. have the perception that the economy is in bad shape due to the Biden administration and that we are in a recession. A recent The Guardian Harris Poll shows, “55% believe the economy is shrinking, and 56% think the U.S. is experiencing a recession, though the broadest measure of the economy, gross domestic product (GDP), has been growing.” President Biden’s struggle to form coherent thoughts during the presidential debates on CNN has likely only reinforced those perceptions.

The reality is that the U.S. working class was hit hard by a recession in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and then set back by inflation between 2021 and 2023. At this point, workers have made a very slight recovery. According to a “Real Earnings” May 2024 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “from May 2023 to May 2024, real average hourly earnings increased 0.8 percent, seasonally adjusted. The change in real average hourly earnings combined with no change in the average workweek resulted in a 0.9-percent increase in real average weekly earnings over this period.”

The weak rebound for the working class can be contrasted with the massive profits from corporations. The politicians in Washington on both sides of the aisle have done very little to curb the production of fossil fuels, and this is seen through an incredible jump in profits by the oil industry. According to CNN, “The top five U.S.-based oil and gas companies by market cap, according to S&P Global—ExxonMobil (XOM), Chevron (CVX), ConocoPhillips (CPP), EOG Resources (EOG) and Schlumberger (SLB)—have raked in more than $250 billion in profits between 2021 and 2023. That’s a 160% jump compared to the first three years of the pro-big-oil Trump administration.”

In 2019, a headline in The New York Times read, “In a strong economy why are so many workers on strike?” At that time, workers at General Motors, Marriott, Stop and Shop, and many other places were walking the picket line to improve their economic situation, benefits, and working conditions. The NYT wrote, “… according to those on strike, the strong growth is precisely the point. Autoworkers, teachers and other workers accepted austerity when the economy was in a free fall, expecting to share in the gains once the recovery took hold. In recent years, however, many of those workers have come to believe that they fell for a sucker’s bet, as they watched their employers grow flush while their own incomes barely budged.”

What has been more or less true historically is that economic depression can have a demoralizing impact on the working class. Workers often will retreat and try to defend what little they have. As the economic pressures lift, so too does the confidence of the working class. This slight uptick in the economic situation for workers coming out of the worst impact of the pandemic is likely one of the reasons there has been a renewed interest in workers organizing unions and a willingness to go out on strike. The classic example is, of course, the three great strikes of 1934 following the difficult period of the Great Depression, which saw world GDP drop significantly between 1929 and 1932. The interim recovery that started around 1933 gave the working class some confidence in their ability to place demands on the bosses.

Special oppression

The extreme uneven disparity between the wealthy capitalists and the working and oppressed poor is just the economic element of a more complete package of repression and degradation through the laws cooked up by the politicians in Washington, D.C. and in local government. Let’s look at four examples of the types of attacks the working class is facing:

• Immigrant rights

On June 4, Biden issued a Presidential Proclamation that would immediately shut down asylum rules at the U.S.-Mexican border. This proclamation is building on Biden’s May 2023 declaration that made it extremely difficult for migrant working people traveling from other countries to seek asylum in the U.S. The pressure from the right-wing and fascist forces that rallied against immigration and in favor of militarizing the border in February in Eagle Pass, Texas, is clearly pressuring the Democratic Party to move further to the right.

• LGBTQIA+

The Biden administration tried to win conservative and religious right-wing voters by announcing on July 2 that he opposes gender re-affirming health care for minors. Moreover. according to the ACLU, there are currently 527 bills in state legislatures across the U.S. targeting the Queer community. While the vast majority of these bills fall short in state legislatures, the normalization of anti-LGBTQIA+ attitudes creates an increasingly harsh atmosphere that is attempting to drive people back into the closet. The Hill reports, “The report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 93 percent of transgender teens from the ages of 13 to 17 live in states where there are laws or proposed laws “banning access to gender-affirming care, participation in sports, use of bathrooms and other sex-separated facilities, or affirmation of gender through pronoun use.”

• Abortion rights

The overturning of Roe v. Wade had a devastating impact on access to quality reproductive care, including the right to safe abortions. Idaho has been one of the most extreme cases of attacks on abortion rights. It is one of six states that prohibit all abortions with no exception for the mother’s health if her life is at risk. Leaked documents suggest that the Supreme Court may allow an exception for emergency abortions to save a mother’s life; but the ruling will not go far enough to secure the reproductive rights of millions of people.

• Police brutality

The George Floyd protests introduced the language of “defund” and “abolition” of the police to the broader public. However, the promised changes that Democrats made about policing never happened. The police continue to protect and serve the interests of the wealthy elite by enforcing capitalist laws with a severe brutality that includes an increasing number of extra judicial killings. USA Today reports, “Police killed more than 1,300 people in 2023, a year that saw several high-profile cases including the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, the shooting of an environmental activist [Tortuguita] who was protesting the construction of a police and fire training center near Atlanta and the death of a Virginia man who was ‘smothered’ in a hospital. There were only 14 days without a police killing last year, and on average, law enforcement officers killed someone every 6.6 hours.”

Unions, economic struggle, and the fight against oppression

Organizing the unorganized is one way that workers can build stronger unions to take on bigger fights on a national level.

The UAW organizing drive in the auto industry, inspired by the “Stand Up” strike in October 2023, opened the possibility of organizing thousands of autoworkers across the U.S. This dynamic moment was met with the success of Volkswagen workers’ organizing drive in Chattanooga, Tenn. The drive had failed two previous times but was successful the third time backed by the momentum following the strike against the Big Three automakers.

While some of the tactics changed in the organizing drive, ultimately, the organizing model remained one that is supposed to be “worker-led” but ultimately is a top-down project. Jimmy Kimbrel, a worker at the Mercedes factory in Vance, Ala., writes in Jacobin, “Our campaign was worker-led. However, in the closing weeks of the campaign as organizers helped us get ready for the vote, I definitely saw workers become less visible. It was harder to get volunteers, and workers weren’t responding to messages or attending meetings as much as they had prior.”

A fatal flaw in this campaign was announcing their union drive with little more than 30 percent of cards signed. Organizing in the South is extraordinarily difficult. It should be no surprise that the UAW lost a close union vote in a Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama. Because of these difficulties a deeper, more-thought out campaign could have transformed the struggle for a union in Vance into a crisis for the capitalists who run that city. The bosses and local governments collaborate very closely, and anti-union campaigns are merciless, utilizing both the “carrot and the stick” methods to dissuade workers from joining the union.

The examples of the RWDSU/UFCW in organizing chicken farms and meatpacking across the South offers important insights into just how difficult it is to win the union. The Smithfield Meatpacking plant in North Carolina took 17 years to win a union!

The committees needed to take the time to double or triple the amount of workers signed up on the cards, connecting their organizing drive to the social struggles taking place not just in Vance but in all of Alabama and across the Southern states. The union could have launched a massive fund drive to raise money to take hundreds of workers out on a leave of absence and send them to Vance to help with the drive. The entirety of the labor movement could have been called to show their support, donate money, and offer volunteers.

A class-conscious union leadership, organized in a class-struggle left wing, could have offered guidance to the workers every step of the way while still maintaining the democratic rights of all the members involved. There’s no doubt that the organizing at Mercedes will continue. Sometimes the lessons learned from a loss are necessary for understanding how to build a strong democratic union.

The labor movement in the U.S. can play a dynamic role in winning economic demands for the working class. Rank-and-file workers have shown time and time again their willingness to fight. Unions often use the phrase in the lead-up to a strike that says, “We don’t want to strike, but we will if we have to.” Most workers recognize that a strike is one of their only real weapons and  aren’t afraid to strike if there is a good reason.

This is one reason that UAW President Shawn Fain’s call for unions to align their contract expiration dates for May 1, 2028, for a general strike has captured the imagination of many. Fain writes in In These Times, “There’s been talk about a ​“general strike” for as long as I’ve been alive. But that’s all it has been: talk. If we are serious about building enough collective power to win universal health care and the right to retire with dignity, then we need to spend the next four years getting prepared. A general strike isn’t going to happen on a whim. It’s not going to happen over social media. A successful general strike is going to take time, mass coordination, and a whole lot of work by the labor movement. As working people, we must come together. We can no longer allow corporations, politicians and borders to divide us. It’s time we reclaimed May Day for the working class. That’s what our May Day contract expiration is all about.”

Whether other unions will follow suit remains to be seen. It’s hard to believe that with the UAW’s support for President Biden and the Democratic Party in general that this call will be realized. And 2028 also happens to be an election year; the proposed union campaign might serve as a threat to both Republicans and Democrats who will be vying for office.

The idea of using strikes and a general strike in particular to win broader gains for the working class on the national level is not something that has been relevant since the May 1, 2006, general strike of some 7 million immigrant workers that shut down reactionary anti-immigrant legislation. The movement however was co-opted by the Democratic Party through the help of the churches, unions, and nonprofits.

The push toward a mass united-front-type movement to take up social issues, political problems, and international solidarity doesn’t just happen organically. It has to be organized by the most conscious and advanced layers of the working class. History has taught us that there are at least two essential conditions to build this type of movement. First, the rank-and-file must have a real democratic voice and feel ownership over the process. Second, political guidance from socialist organizations participating in the unions is critical.

The main examples for workers to examine include the three great strikes of 1934 in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. These strikes, with the participation of socialist and communist parties, ushered in an era of industrial organizing that would change the face of the labor movement. Often these strikes took on broader political and social issues, like the fight against fascism led by the Trotskyists in Minneapolis, in the lead-up to World War II. Rank-and-file initiatives are few and far between these days. The working class has lost most of its traditions of struggle, and it is going to take time to relearn them. Socialist parties that have acted as the historic memory of the class are also small and rebuilding after decades of setbacks.

Building rank-and-file-led groups to take on political issues can spark a wider movement in the unions that challenges the more conservative layers of the bureaucracy. Labor for Palestine, for example, has mobilized thousands of labor activists to build solidarity against the genocide of Palestinians. Similarly, the Mobilization for Reproductive Justice (NMRJ) is an important example of an initiative by rank-and-file labor activists that is trying to put pressure on the AFL-CIO leadership to take on the issue of abortion outside the context of getting Democrats elected to office.

These are important examples of how workers can develop principled political initiatives in the labor movement and more broadly in the working class. Every coworker won in the struggle against oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so on helps dismantle the wedge that the capitalist class tries to drive between workers.

The thousands of struggles working-class and oppressed peoples are engaged in every day show a tremendous potential to change society. The fight to organize unions in the South and everywhere else will give workers a basic form of organization for class struggle. The politicization of unions and the willingness of the members to fight for their democratic rights to control their unions is also an essential part of developing a class-struggle left wing of the labor movement.

An important goal in this process is the fight for class independence. The Biden administration’s sordid record—the forced concessionary contract of railroad workers, destruction of the environment, genocide of the Palestinians, and more—highlights the urgent need to break a majority of the labor movement from the Democratic Party. Then workers must use that break to fight for political demands through the organization of a mass independent labor party.

A move toward class independence could have a tremendous impact on the ability to organize the unorganized, fight concessionary contracts, and lead a broad united-front struggle against all the attacks of the ruling class. Such a party doesn’t need to be reformist in character. Workers in the course of struggle to create a labor party could also be won to a socialist program. This type of party could challenge the capitalists and radically reshape the landscape in favor of the working class and oppressed.

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