Notes on the Class Struggle in the U.S.

Below we publish the notes used by John Peterson, National Secretary of the WIL, as the basis for his introduction to the discussion on “Perspectives for the Class Struggle in the United States” at the 2011 WIL Marxist National School. We recommend it be read in conjunction with the U.S. Perspectives 2010 document approved at the WIL’s last National Congress.

We always begin our Schools and Congresses with a discussion of World Perspectives, not only because we are revolutionary internationalists fighting for world socialism, but because the U.S. is an integral part of the world, and events internationally have an effect on events here. In this era of world economic exchange and world economic crisis, world revolution is also on the agenda. A few years ago, many comrades may have accepted this in theory, in the abstract, but they probably thought that the perspectives for such developments were in the distant future, especially when it came to the U.S. But I am sure we can all cite one example after another of how the simmering discontent which we refer to so often has only intensified in the 12 months, since our last national meeting. It doesn’t take a genius–although it does take a Marxist–to understand that sooner rather than later, all this pent up energy must find a way to the surface. And it is finding a way to the surface, and it is only the beginning.

When we discuss perspectives, what matters most to us is not this or that particular rise or fall of the stock market, of GDP, unemployment, or home foreclosure rate. And it is not this or that particular election, opinion poll, or political speech. We must of course be attentive and attuned to the qualitative turning points in history, which can transform the situation from one moment to the next, but above all, we must grasp and undrestand the overall trend of development, and above all the effect of events on workers’ and young people’s consciousness. I think we can say without fear of exaggeration that the experience of the last few years has had and is having a life-changing effect on the way people think and on how they behave.

Conditions determine consciousness. Capitalism is an inherently unstable system. For a time it was able to maintain a certain equilibrium, but that has now been violently upended. The system long ago reached its progressive historical limits. It cannot offer a way forward. The old norms cannot be relied on. Or as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Consciousness is conservative by nature, and it takes time for it to catch up with objective reality. And as Trotsky put it, the objective conditions for the socialist revolution are “rotten ripe,” especially in the United States. What is lacking is the subjective factor, a mass revolutionary party firmly rooted in the labor movement. But as American workers and young people increasingly realize that this is in fact “as good as it gets,” and that worse is yet to come, consciousness will catch up with a bang. But it will not happen automatically and mechanically, and it will not develop in a nice, straight, easy-to-follow line. We must keep our finger on the pulse of the class struggle so as not to be taken by surprise, and we must strengthen our organization so as to be able to take advantage of opportunities to the fullest when they arise. We must sharpen our tools—out theory and methods—and practice applying them consistently to the world around us.

The American Dream had a material base. For several decades after World War Two, if you worked hard, you actually had a fairly good chance of getting ahead. The workers were generating such high profits for the capitalists that the bosses could afford to concede a few benefits such as improved workplace and environmental safety, wage increases, retirement and disability pensions, and health care, at least to a significant portion of society. Organized labor, after thousands of bitter, hard fought battles, was able to to improve the quality of life for all American workers, not just those in unions. But the system has hit a brick wall. It can no longer deliver even the basic comforts of a civilized life to the majority of the working class. And it is this fact above all that is shaping and reshaping the consciousness of millions. Not the essays of Karl Marx, not the editorials in Socialist Appeal, but the cold, hard reality of life under capitalism.

The Economy

The relationship between the economic base and its political and ideological reflection in what we call the superstructure of society is complex, dialectical, and reciprocal. But in the final analysis, as Marxists, we understand that the economic base is decisive, and sets the basic parameters within which all the political, ideological, and social struggles unfold, develop and interact on one another. An economic crisis of the scale we are passing through cannot but profoundly affect all those that are living through it.

The labor market now stands at 7 million jobs below where it was in December 2007, just before the recession hit. But given the increase in the working-age population, the economy would require another 4 million jobs, or a total of 11 million jobs, to restore the unemployment rate to the pre-recession “good old days” of George W. Bush and 5% unemployment. And even then, millions would be terminally unemployed.

The economy needs to generate between 125,000 and 150,000 jobs each month just to keep up with population growth. With that in mind, at April’s job growth rate of around 240,000 new jobs, it would take until the fall of 2016 to get back to the pre-recession unemployment rate. But there is another important question needs to be asked: what kinds of jobs are being created? Are the millions of high-paying union jobs that were out-sourced or destroyed altogether in the last few years coming back? Far from it. Of the 244,000 new jobs created last month, roughly one in four of them—62,000—were at McDonald’s. And that’s a fact!

But even this modest rate of growth is not sustainable, as there are thousands more layoffs in the pipeline as the state and federal budgets go into effect, with public sector workers now in the crosshairs. Over the last six months, state and local governments have cut an average of 24,000, mostly-unionized, public sector jobs each and every month. Since the public sector employment peak in August 2008, state and local governments have cut nearly half a million jobs.

The fact is, as we’ve explained repeatedly in our documents and articles, things are actually worse under Obama than they were under Bush, and he is actually more dangerous to the working class than Bush. He has been able to push through the reactionary policies of the ruling class by presenting them as a “necessary and lesser evil” when compared to the Republicans’ policies. But the discontent with the reality of these policies will eventually assert itself. No amount of “hope for change” can change the fact that millions are out of work and losing their homes while Wall Street is richer than ever.

We sometimes speak of the two Americas, the America of the rich and the America of the workers and the poor. There are also in effect, two American economies, that of the rich, and that of the workers and poor. As most workers are painfully aware, there has been a booming recovery for the rich. The Fortune 500 companies have now posted 9 consecutive quarters of growth, and many of them are even more profitable than before the crisis. Many companies are making record profits and many CEOs are getting record bonuses. Wall Street profits soared to $426.5 billion in the 2nd quarter of 2011. Big Oil, which earn $3 billion each and every week, continues to receive $4 billion in taxpayer subsidies every year, even though their profits were up 38 percent from the first quarter of 2010.

And then there are companies like General Electric, which reported profits of $14.2 billion in 2010, yet paid zero taxes last year. Between 1998 and 2009, 57% of all U.S. corporations did not pay any Federal taxes for at least one year. At the same time, state and city governments have been dragged into a downward spiral of tax incentives and tax breaks to get these same large corporations to move to their areas, which then proceeed to lay off workers and shutter operations once the tax and other incentives run out.

Despite the unprecedented nature of the crisis, the biggest corporations have accumulated over $2 trillion in cash that they are just sitting on. They are not using this money to create new jobs or to build new plants due the increased productivity of existing workers and the excess capacity they built up during the previous economic expansion. Obama and the labor leaders desperately want these companies to invest and create new jobs, but the entire American legal system is is based on the sacred rights of private property, on the premise that you cannot compel anyone to do with their property that which they do not wish to do with it. In other words, a rational plan of production is impossible under capitalism. You cannot plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you do not own. No amount of begging by Obama or anyone else will compel them to invest in jobs if it is not profitable for them.

For the workers and the poor, it’s a different reality altogether. The polarization of wealth in society has reached unprecedented levels. 400 individuals in the U.S. now own more than the bottom 50% in this country. That means that 400 people have more wealth than 160 million people combined. Meanwhile, average inflation-adjusted wages have not risen since 1975, although the productivity of American workers has increased by nearly 100% since 1973. There is every indication that since the beginning of the crisis the disparity has only been exacerbated further. This polarization of wealth and income inevitably has a polarizing effect on society and politics.

The official unemployment rate stands at around 9 percent, but if you use the more accurate U-6 employment under-utilization figures, which includes the underemployed, it is nearly double that, at 16 percent. In April of this year, there were nearly 25 million workers who were either unemployed or underemployed. Many more aren’t even counted in the figures because they are no longer actively looking for work. According to some economists, a more accurate measure of the wasted potential and inefficiency of capitalism is the employment-to-population ratio, which is a measure of the proportion of the working age population that has a job. As of April, it currently stands at just 58.4%, compared to 73.1% in 2001. In other words, roughly 41% of the working-age population is jobless.

So how is it that GDP has risen for several quarters in a row, thus officially ending the recession? Increased productivity, particularly in manufacturing, has been driving the recovery, and yet there are millions fewer manufacturing workers than there were just 3 years ago. Out of a total workforce of 150 or so million, only 8% are now employed in manufacturing. In short, the recovery is based on squeezing ever-more surplus value from existing workers: fewer workers are doing more work for less pay. That’s the “secret” of the recovery.

And yet, average wages are hardly moving, and in many fields of work have been in a virtual freefall. But that hasn’t stopped gasoline prices from rising 30% in the last 12 months, and food prices are also dramatically higher. No wonder consumer confidence see-saws up and down from month to month and week to week.

Several months into the so-called recovery, there are still 5.8 million workers who have been unemployed for longer than six months, the highest number on record. And believe me, most people do not “choose” to be out of work, it is not a “lifestyle choice” to have no social life and to live on your parents’ couch after college! But what choice do people have when there are 4.4 unemployed people for every available job? One in three adult men are without work. Since the financial crisis hit, more than two million more Americans have fallen into poverty. More than 43 million Americans, including 20% of all children, now live below the poverty line.

Residential real estate has lost more than six trillion dollars in value since 2008, with 57 consecutive months of declines. Housing values are down by a third over the last three years and they’re still falling. Fewer homes were sold in the first three months of this year since they began keeping records. 8 million homeowners are now at least one month behind on their mortgage payments. And yet this is supposed to be a recovery!

The point here is not to barrage you with numbers, even though it useful to have hard facts and figures available to back up our political analysis and demands. The point is to illustrate with the capitalists’ own statistics the unbearable contradictions and pressures that are building up in the system, which must sooner or later have a political and social expression.

And although workers are suffering across the board, things are even worse for some layers of society. African Americans and Latinos, and especially immigrant workers, have been particularly hard hit. The unemployment rate for Blacks is 16.1%, double the 8.0% rate for whites. Blacks have also had their homes foreclosed at twice the rate of whites. Just 56.9% of Black adult men are employed, the lowest level since records began in the 1970s. 26% of Blacks live in poverty in the U.S. Unemployment for immigrant workers is several percentage points higher than for those born in the U.S. Deportations of the undocumented are higher under Obama than under Bush, and even a “lesser evil” immigration reform is nowhere in sight, let alone the only real reform that can seriously improve their condition: equal rights for all and an immediate and unconditional amnesty.

The Youth

But above all, the crisis is having a profound effect on the youth. This is the real story of the crisis, and from our perspective, is ripe with revolutionary implications.

In April, official unemployment stood at 17.6% for workers under 25 years old, nearly double the rate across all age groups, and likely far higher if we consider the under-employed. Among those under 25 who are not enrolled in school, unemployment over the last year averaged 21.8% for those with only a high school degree—a rise of 9.8% since the recession began in 2007. For those under 25 with a college degree, the rate is slightly better, at 9.6%, a rise of 4.2% since 2007. But going to college is no longer a guarantee that you will find a better job, or any job at all. Despite this, college tuition has risen an astonishing 900% since 1978, and the Wall Street Journal reports that tuition is rising at 5% a year, far faster than wages or savings can possibly keep up with.

As part of this rise, the preponderance of for-profit higher education has accelerated dramatically in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2008, there was a 225% increase in enrollment at for-profit colleges, from 670,000 to 1.8 million students. Business is booming, but where do the profits come from? As it turns out, 77% of the revenue brought in at the five largest for-profit colleges comes from federal student loans and grants. Tuition at these schools is twice as high as in-state public colleges and about five times as high as two-year public colleges. No wonder 43% of students who default on their student loans are graduates from one of these schools, even though they make up only 11% of the student population.

And here’s an even more incredible fact: total student debt in the U.S. is now greater than total credit card debt, and will reach an estmated $1 trillion this year. The average debt for a bachelor’s degree recipient in 2011 will be almost $23,000, the highest in history. That’s an instant lifetime of being perpetually chained to the banks. This debt keeps young peopleon a short leash, limiting their mobility and ability to get involved in things like politics. After all, you need to work in order to pay off that student loan!

Hundreds of thousands of recent graduates are unemployed, underemployed, working for free in internships, or working part-time or temporary jobs, often jobs that don’t even require a college degree and all the debt getting a degree entails. Even graduates from places like Princeton end up working in video or grocery stores just to make ends meet. No wonder an incredible 85% of 2011 college graduates report that they are moving back to their parents’ house after graduation!

A recent poll revealed that only 44% think that today’s children will have a better life than their parents, as compared to 71% in 2001. This is a stark admission that the American Dream of potential upward mobility if you “work hard” and “play by the rules” is well and truly over. The fact that this generation will be poorer than their parents cannot help but sink in at a certain stage. Disillusionment and apparent apathy can be quickly transformed into outrage and action, as we have seen in countries like the UK.

And it can only get worse for young workers just entering the market. Older workers, especially those just a few years from retirement, are holding on to their jobs for dear life, because if they lose them, they may never get a decent job again, condemning them to a retirement of poverty and uncertainty. So even if the Democrats and Republicans have not yet officially raised the retirement age, there has been a defacto rise, as many workers are forced to work longer than they expected, having lost a big chunk of their retirement savings during the crisis or simply being unable to make ends meet if they do not continue working. With new jobs sacrce and existing jobs not being vacated as quickly as in the past, the youth face a perspective of not being able to start their careers until much later, if at all, and this in turn condemns them to a lifetime of poverty and of playing “catch up” to pay off their student loans, buy a car, or start a family. This is the reality of capitalism in the second decade of the 21st century: the least able must work til they drop, and those most able to work are prevented from doing so!

An increasingly educated population is facing a vice-grip of higher tuition, a lifetime of debt, and no guarantee that all the sacrifice and expense will pay off in the end. This is inexorably preparing the grounds for a titanic explosion of the youth in the coming period. This is precisely the volatile social cocktail that led to the mass uprisings of the youth and workers in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Middle East. The movements in California and elsewhere are just a taste of what’s to come. We must pay more attention to the student movement and participate and intervene more deliberately. And not just the students. There are millions of young people, both employed and unemployed, who are not in school, who also feel the frustration of the confines of this system. I am convinced that it is among the youth that we will find the future leaders of our organization and of the working class as a whole.

A Class Struggle Budget

So, to get back to the economy and the impending austerity, I think it is important to note that the American Majority project, which compiled a series of recent polls, fuond that a majority of Americans want higher taxes on the wealthy, oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare, would like to see the defense budget reduced, and want the government to address jobs and economic growth before focusing on the deficit. Even the rank and file of the Tea Party opposed doing away with Medicare and Social Security. As could be expected, all of this is for the most part ignored by the mainstream media. But one thing we cannot ignore is the fact that in reality, far from being in a minority, the majority of Americans actually support what are, broadly speaking, socialist policies.

And yet, both parties have put schools, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security on the chopping block. As Obama put it, “Any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table.” The federal stimulus package passed a couple of years ago temporarily helped pump money into the states and cities, but that is all over now, and only served as a bit of sugar coating on the bitter pill of austerity that is now being rammed down workers’ throats.

Both the Republicans and Democrats say we need “shared sacrifice.” We have sacrificed plenty already: millions of jobs destroyed, wages cut, homes lost, savings wiped out, and families and communities torn apart. The Republicans propose $4.4 trillion in cuts. Obama instead proposes “only” $4 trillion in cuts. As we’ve said before, it’s like asking if you want 20 inches of your leg cut off or just 18 inches. These are the “choices” we are offered under this system. But they never mention that the entire deficit can be traced to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 bailout of the rich.

The Bowles-Simpson commission was just a dress rehearsal for the serious cuts to come, all under the guise of so-called bi-partisanship, which intended to give the illusion of inevitability to the cuts. After all, “If both parties—who are apparently such mortal enemies on everything else—agree on this, surely there is no other way!”

Long before the Republicans began their current onslaught, Obama kicked things off by unilaterally announcing a wage freeze for over 2 million federal workers. That means no cost of living adjustments, which in practice means a wage cut. And that was just the beginning. Being a man of “compromise,” Obama will meet the Republicans half-way—which means that the starting point for the “negotiations” over what will have to be cut will begin with billions in cuts already guaranteed. From there, further “compromise” will lead to many more programs and services being “compromised” out of existence.

But we must be clear: the reason for these attacks, and especially the Republicans’ more openly vicious attacks, is not simply because these people have a right wing ideology. The reason is simple: in order to restore equilibrium to their imbalanced system, the capitalist class must drive down wages and cut social services, and they don’t care which capitalist party gets the job done for them. Their ideology and actions are conditioned by the needs of the system they defend and represent. The worldwide crisis of capitalism requires this. This particular crisis has been even sharper and deeper as the capitalists tried to postpone the slump through an enormous expansion of credit and the pumping up of a massive housing bubble, which inevitably imploded. The bosses and their system caused the crisis, but the workers are to be made to pay for it.

It is normally the case that cuts “trickle down” from the federal government to states and municipalities, which can make it harder to focus the fight back. But this time around, the attacks are more clearly coming from the top, providing us with a tremendous opportunity to organize a serious and nationally coordinated fight back. And we will have to fight back, and there will be heavy defeats, but we have no other alternative. Because, as we have always explained: unless and until capitalism is overthrown by the conscious and collective action of the working class, it can and will recover and maintain itself on the backs of the workers. The question is, at what cost to the lives, nerves and sanity of the majority of society? And more importantly from our perspective, we understand that at a certain point, the workers will say “enough is enough!” and seek another way forward.

The Labor Movement and the need for a Labor Party

As we all know, over the last 30 years, the percentage of U.S. workers organized in unions has declined from around 25% to less than 12% overall. Pivate sector unions in industries such as auto and steel took the most severe beating over this period. By 2009, only 7.2% of workers in private companies were unionized, and for the first time in history, there were more unionized workers in the public sector than in the private. Roughly 37% of public sector workers remain unionized, in part because it is much harder to offshore a municipal office worker or janitor than it is a steel worker or computer programer. But now that unions in private companies have been decimated, it’s time to break the back of public sector workers.

Everyone from federal and county administrative workers to teachers, firemen, and daycare attendants are being portrayed as “greedy” and “overpaid” and are being threatened with mass layoffs and even jail time if they dare stand up against the vicious atttacks on their standard of living. Higher union wages lead to higher non-union wages, as the bosses are forced to grant some concessions to hold off the formation of a union in their company or unit. But higher wages means lower profits, and given the crisis of capitalism, even small concessions such as bathroom breaks and sick leave are “too much,” let alone decent pensions and cost of living wage adjustments. The attacks on the public sector are also an attempt to prepare the ground for the privatization of what remains in state hands: the Post Office, public education, public administration, and so on.

Unfortunately, the current Labor leadership living in past – by and large, they continue to pursue a policy class collaboration, of trying to fix the problems of the workers within the confines of the capitalist system and within the confines of the two capitalist parties system.

For example, the leaders of two of the largest public sector unions in Wisconsin, were perfectly willing to accept all of Walker’s demands for pay and benefit cuts (totaling $30 million), if only he would withdraw his demand to dismantle collective bargaining. This was their position both before and after the movement erupted. They did this with no consultation with the workers they are supposed to represent. And of course, they continue for the most part to be supporters of the Democrats, even though disillusionment in the Democrats is what brought Scott Walker to power in the first place. And as the recall campaign unfolds, many of these leaders seem even more interested in making sure that if Walker’s legislation passes and union dues can no longer be automatically deducted from paychecks, that bank auto payments are in place to make sure the union gets the money anyway. Cuts and concessions? Sure! But don’t touch collective bargaining! Never mind that collective bargaining that cannot win wages and conditions that are better than non-union workers is hardly worth the name.

As comrade Alan Woods explained in a recent article on Spain: “Although they think of themselves as practical and realistic people, the union leaders have not the slightest idea of the seriousness of the crisis of capitalism. They imagine that, by accepting cuts and other impositions in the hope that everything will be all right in the end. This is an illusion. For every step back they make, the bosses will demand three more … As the class struggle develops, the radicalization of the rank and file of the unions will undoubtedly enter into conflict with the conservatism of the leadership. The workers will demand a complete transformation of the unions from top to bottom, and will strive to turn them into real fighting organizations. But at the present time the unions are lagging behind the needs of the workers and youth.”

These lines could have been written about the United States. But as in Spain, the workers and youth of the U.S. will not wait forever before they begin to mobilize and fight back on a massive scale.

Unable to provide a fighting lead on the trade union front, the labor leaders are even worse when it comes to providing a bold lead on the political front. The need for a Labor Party virtually screams from the rooftops, and yet, we can say without exaggeration, that we are the only ones raising this idea in a clear and consistent way. Sooner rather than later, many more will join in calling for a Labor Party, and at a certain stage, such a party will be formed. As this process unfolds, we will have to change our approach, and we will focus more on explaining what kind of Labor Party we want, with what kind of program—a socialist program of course—and what kinds of internal structures and approach to electoral politics. But for now, our call for a Labor Party and our launching of the CMPL remains one of the key fields of our work.

Because there is tremendous confusion on this question, despite the undoubted goodwill of those who are working hard to find a solution. What we have learned from the IMT on the question of the mass organizations and how the working class moves—not how we would like them to move in an ideal world—but how they actually move in the real world, is the key difference.

How we approach the question

There are those who want to stem the tide of labor’s defeats by focusing on the trade union side of things, on reviving the strike as an effective tool for fighting against the bosses. We would agree that this is a necessary component of the fight back. But we also understand that as long as the hundreds of anti-labor laws are on the books and enforced by the state and its courts, the unions will be fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. Many of these class struggle labor activists want to continue relying on the Democrats to somehow magically change the labor laws, even when the Democrats can’t and won’t pass EFCA, let alone repeal Taft-Hartley. Others of this ilk think that struggle on the political front is futile altogether, so we should focus exclusively on trade unionism. These are the modern-day Economists, those who want to separate the political and economic struggles to improve workers’ conditions of life. We think we need a combined struggle, because after all, as Lenin summed it up, politics is concentrated economics.

Many others agree on the need for a political struggle and a break with the Democrats and Republicans. This is a good start, it is the first letters of the alphabet, but as we often say, after A, B, and C there are many other letters, and a serious perspective on the way forward must go beyond the ABCs. Even if they do not explicitly reject the need for a Labor Party, most left groups have the delusion that somehow their minuscule forces can provide an attractive alternative to millions of workers and young people. This has been tried over and again and has never gone and never will go anywhere. No wonder the turnover rate in many of these groups is so high, with people getting burnt out or spinning their wheels in eternal impotence. We are also a tiny group at the present time, but our orientation and perspective are 180 degrees different. Our orientation is clearly and consistently aimed at connecting first with the advanced layers of the workers and youth and then the broader masses. Since we cannot wait for the mountain to come to us, we must go to the mountain!

Others think that an unprincipled and artificial cobbling together of all the left groups is the way forward. Even if this were to happen, it would only amount to a couple thousand people in this country of over 300 million. At that rate, we will never build the mass revolutionary party we need to transform society. This is a completely mechanical and undialectical way of approaching the question. The whole is not always greater than the sum of its parts, not to mention that all these little grouplets would be at each other’s throats over this or that programmatic or historical disagreement. How this would serve as a pole of attraction to anyone is beyond me. This too has also been tried on countless occasions, and has led only to even further divisions, paralysis, and weakening of the movement, to 3 groups fusing into 7, to paraphrase Ted Grant.

Others propose the formation of a brand new, vaguely-defined, anti-corporate, anti-cuts, anti-war party, based on various “social movements” including the workers, which will then somehow gain the support of the unions, after it has been formed. This too has been tried many times, particularly in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, where it has led only to disastrous failure on the margins of the unions and the traditional workers’ parties. It has also been tried here in the U.S., in the form of the Green Party and other efforts of that kind. As Cindy Sheehan recently put it at a forum in Minneapolis, she thinks a Mass Party of Labor is a “great idea,” but that it would “have to be organized outside of organized labor.” In effect, this means that since the current labor leadership is not up to the tasks posed to it by history, the millions of workers they represent should be abandoned to their incompetent–or worse—leadership. This is a very different approach to calling on the labor leaders to mobilize their tremendous resources and millions of members to build a Labor Party. It betrays serious confusion and a lack of understanding of how workers actually move and vote when they move into political action, and a complete abandonment of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky’s policy of always bringing our ideas to where the workers are, no matter how rotten, corrupt, reformist or bureaucratic the leadership may be.

Then there are those who agree with the need for a Labor Party, but seek to find an individual Labor leader on whom to hang their hopes and rally the workers around. They think that the pattern of the Labor Party Advocates could be replicated if only we could find a modern-day Tony Mazzocchi, so they concentrate their efforts on that. Now, a charismatic labor leader taking up the idea of breaking with the Democrats and building a Labor Party would be a fantastic thing to be sure, but what is really needed to build a genuine mass party of labor is not this or that individual leader or even a handful of minor unions, but the rank and file support of several major unions. The fact that the bulk of the unions—even many of those who formally signed on to the LP–continued to support the Democrats was the real Achilles heel of the Labor Party in the 1990s, combined with a timid approach toward electoral politics and the overall conditions of extended economic boom that cut across the urgency of building such a party.

Our approach is different. We call on the labor leadership to do what they are there to do: to lead. And that means providing a militant lead in the workplace against the attacks of the bosses. It means mobilizing in the factories and on the streets, and organizing militant class struggle strikes intended to stop production and bring the company to its knees, not just let off steam or “make a statement” while scabs are brought in to take our jobs. And it means preparing for and implementing genuine general strikes as the situation demands. It also means providing a political lead: a break with the parties of Big Business and using the vast resources and membership of organized labor to build a labor party based on the unions, that could reach out aggressively to the unemployed, the non-unionized, immigrant workers, and the youth to build a truly mass party that could effectively challenge the bosses’ parties. In short, we believe that the only force that has the power, numbers, resources, and organizing capacity to challenge these two main corporate parties is organized Labor.

One major complicating factor is the absence of substantial left-leaning opposition currents in the unions, with just a few exceptions. Without the threat of losing their elected positions to an internal opposition current, the labor leaders have caved and conceded concessions even more rapidly and cravenly than may have otherwise been the case. But nature abhors a vacuum, and sooner or later, this void must be filled. Given the lack of an alternative, something as small and relatively insignificant as the Emergency Labor Network, which emerged from a conference of 100 left-leaning trade unionists in Cleveland this last winter could grow into somethng more substantial, and we need to keep an eye on this development and participate in it. The same goes for the folks gathered around Labor Notes. The need for a Labor Party and for class struggle trade unionism will continue to grow until the current leaders deliver, or what is more likely, until a new leadership emerges to take the reins. But that will not happen overnight.

Nonetheless, we have already seen symptoms of the growing pressure from below on the labor leaders to do something on both the industrial and the political fronts. For example, we had the short-lived or cut-short candidacies of Jack Shea of the Steelworkers and socialist Mel Packer in Pittsburgh, to Hugh Giordano’s impressive results in his campaign in Philadelphia, to SEIU’s formation of the North Carolina Families First Party, and the revival of the South Carolina Labor Party. These are modest but important symptoms of a growing discontent among the union rank and file.

In just the last couple of weeks, important developments in the AFL-CIO itself and other unions such as the Firefighters, SEIU, National Nurses United—who by the way have a very militant “No Concessions!”–campaign going at the moment, how the way things are moving. All of these unions have publicly announced that they will invest more of their political resources in their own structures, grassroots outreach, and community networking. The Firefighters have stated that because of their disappointment with Republicans and Democrats at the national level, they will be putting all their political money into state and local races.

Even more importantly, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has in effect declared the “political independence” of the 11-million-strong labor federation when it comes to backing electoral candidates. In other words, the Democrats can no longer automatically assume the AFL-CIO will endorse and mobilize its members behind them. He does leave open the possibility of backing Republicans, if they have pro-worker policies, but his aim was clearly at the Democrats. As Trumka put it: “We are looking hard at how we work in the nation’s political arena. We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people – in the workplace and in political life. Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country. We’ll be less inclined to support people in the future that aren’t standing up and actually supporting job creation and the type of things that we’re talking about. It doesn’t matter what party they come from. It will be a measuring stick.”

He added that, “It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside – the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be – now, in 2012 and beyond.”

Although this is still several steps away from a complete break with the Democrats, or an open call to build a labor party, it is a giant step in that direction and marks an important change in the approach of the country’s largest and most powerful labor federation. Less than a year ago, when we launched the CMPL, many people told us that the unions would NEVER break with the Democrats, that they would ALWAYS be tied to them. On the basis of events and experience, these so-called experts have already been proven hopelessly wrong, and our reading of the situation and launch of the CMPL been more than vindicated. But being right isn’t enough. We need to work even harder to connect our ideas and perspectives with the advanced workers that are moving in this direction and drawing these conclusions. And despite Trumka’s words, the fact is that the labor bureaucracy will continue to fight tooth and nail to make excuses for and avoid a full and permanent break with the Democrats, until it become absolutely untenable to continue the present relationship. Nonetheless, we can use brother Trumka’s words as a bridge between the present policy of the labor bureaucracy and the CMPL.

In addition, last October’s “One Nation” march on Washington for jobs, largely organized by the AFL-CIO, showed the enormous potential for such mobilizations. Although modest in size it was the first of its kind since Reagan was in office. It was the first flexing of American labor’s potential muscle in decades.

This is why we call on the labor leaders, starting with Trumka, to mobilize or rebuild the networks of shop stewards and labor activists, organize rallies, protests, and job actions to fight back against the attacks on workers in the private and public sectors, and to build for a mass march on Washington to demand a mass program of useful public works, jobs, health care and education for all. Now, we understand that the labor leaders will bend over backwards to avoid calling or mobilizing such actions until the pressure from below is about to burst, but our making positive demands on them can help build that pressure up.

Of course, to counter the rise of a Labor Party, the Democrats will demagogically pose even further to left, as Obama did in his 2008 campaign. But this can only get them so far. Reformist rhetoric accompanied by actual reforms is one thing, and can confuse and appease the workers for a time, even for quite a long time. But reformism with counter-reforms, cuts, and austerity will not buy workers’ loyalty forever. It is said that people vote with their wallets, and a political party that in practice offers only lower wages, unemployment, and attacks on unions, cannot maintain the workers’ support forever, even if it is seen as just the accomplice in these cuts, and not the main instigator.

Because workers are increasingly fed up with getting absolutely nothing in return for their continued support for the Democrats. Not even the Employee Free Choice Act. Not even a halfway decent health care plan. Not even the repeal of anti-union laws. Not even a raise in the minimum wage. Not even a half-hearted defense against the attacks of the Tea Party Republicans. American workers are not yet sure what the possible alternative is, but they are very clear about what they do not want, even if they continue to hold their noses and vote for the “lesser evil” Democrats in the meantime.

2010 Midterms

And it is this disillusionment, combined with a lack of a real alternative, that led to the resounding defeat of the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, paving the way for the so-called “greater evil.” As we always explain, elections are a snapshot of society at a given moment, and these elections took place in a very specific context. We have followed the rise and development of the so-called Tea Party, and have explained that their basic program, and that of the Republican Party generally, is to cut government spending and taxes. We have also explained that this new version of Reagan’s trickle down economics will not lead to massive job creation. On the contrary, all it can lead to is the further enrichment of the few and even greater attacks on the workers. This prediction has been entirely borne out, as has our prediction that if the Tea Party candidates ever got in power, it would unleash a wave of workers’ resistance against their draconian cuts, as we have seen in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But with nowhere else to turn, many voters voted for “the other guy” Republicans in 2010.

As far as the results obtained by the handful of left and labor candidates in the 2010 midterm elections, they did have a decent showing on the whole. But as we have always explained, most workers will not vote for a candidate unless he or she has serious resources behind him or her and has at least some realistic chance at winning. Most would rather stay at home than simply “throw away” their vote. Nevertheless, there was an important increase in votes for various left “protest” parties in the last midterm election.

But the real story of the elections was support the AFL-CIO gave the Democrats: 200,000 volunteers handed out 19.4 million leaflets, made millions of phone calls, and knocked on 8.5 million doors. Just imagine if all of that effort had instead gone toward running independent labor candidates and building a labor party. But they didn’t take this approach and as a result, people like Scott Walker came to power, which in turn prepared the ground for the mass struggles in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin

It is important that we all study and follow the events in Wisconsin. Although there will be this or that difference in the rhythm of the struggles that will unfold, Wisconsin is a mirror for what will eventually happen in one state after another. Even more than that, Wisconsin is a microcosm of the future revolutionary movement in the United States as a whole. In this experience we can see the role of union rank and file, of ordinary workers, of the union leaders, the youth, the reaction of petty bourgeois, and above all, the lack of a decisive, revolutionary leadership with roots in the class and its organizations.

Scott Walker managed to do what many thought impossible: awaken the sleeping giant of the U.S. working class. We often say that it often takes the “whip of counter-revolution” to spur the workers to action. His arrogant frontal assault on the most basic rights of the state’s workers was met with a massive response. When he proposed to eliminate 175,000 public sector workers’ right to collective bargaining, he added insult to injury when he threatened to send out the troops of the National Guard if there was any opposition. On the Monday after he made that threat, several hundred students walked out of class and marched to the Capitol, and were soon joined by several thousand workers and community supporters. On Tuesday and Wednesday, hundreds of teachers staged an illegal “sick in” and several schools had to be closed down. Within days, the crowds had swelled to 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, and more.

By the weekend of March 12th, the crowds grew to an estimated 150,000 in city of 230,000. There were round the clock occupations of the state capitol building by thousands of people, many of them camped out over night, in cold and snowy weather. There were military veterans with signs saying that they didn’t go to Iraq to fight for this. And when the police were sent into the Capitol to kick out the demonstrators, they arrived instead with banners and jackets proclaiming “Cops for Labor” declaring that they work for the people of Wisconsin, not Scott Walker, and would therefore not only not kick everyone out, but would join the occupation.

The firefighters, who like the police, were not directly targeted by these attacks, precisely because of the danger of social instability, marched by the hundreds with their marching band to lend their support. Caravans of thousands of farmers – the very same rural, conservative bastion of the right wing that is the caricature of “backwards” Americans – marched on Madison, declaring that the revolution starts with agriculture and an injury to one is an injury to all. Small business owners, also a traditional base of support for conservatism, opened their doors, gave away free food and shelter, and welcomed the struggle of the state’s public sector workers as their own. The halls of the state capitol resonated with the song Solidarity Forever, and the prospect of a general strike was raised for the first time in this country in nearly 80 years. When the Tea Party, which helped get Walker elected, organized their own counter-rally, busing them in from around the state and around the country, they succeeded in bringing out just 500 to 1,000 of their people – compared to over 70,000 demostrators supporting the union workers.

In short, this marks a decisive change in the situation in the U.S. It is a real inspiration, not only to workers around the country, but around the world. Workers in Wisconsin were directly inspired by the electrifying events in Egypt that had taken place just days earlier and called for the down fall of “Hosni Walker” and for workers’ unity from Cairo to Madison.

The idea that there is no class struggle, class solidarity, and working class—the ideas that we are all “middle class”–has been blown out of the water.

The continuing struggle in Wisconsin is a kind of domino that can go either way. Scott Walker has openly said that he wants his “PATCO moment.” That was when Ronald Reagan crushed the 18,000-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association in 1981 by firing all of them and barring them from federal employment for life. The unions caved in and the unleashed the bloodletting of organized labor that has continued unabated for 30 years. But that was a different epoch – it was the end of period of intense class struggle, at the beginning of a period of relative economic stability and subsequently a long economic expansion. Now we are at the beginning of a new upswing of class struggle, spurred by the deepest capitalist crisis since the 1930s, and by some measures, the deepest in its history. In short, this is a new historical epoch.

A defeat in Wisconsin would lead to even more vicious attacks. But even a partial victory can embolden U.S. workers in a way we haven’t seen in decades. So even though the bill is hanging in legal limbo and may still be imposed, for many Americans, the events in Wisconsin have been an inspiring and encouraging breath of fresh air, and are seen as at least a partial victory for workers in struggle.

Of course, we must maintain a sense of proportion: it is only the beginning of the beginning. But I think we can say without exaggeration that the process of the U.S. revolution has now begun, a process that will unfold over a period of many years, with many contradictions, ebbs and flows, victories and defeats. One thing is for sure: things will never be the same in U.S. politics.

One of the most exciting developments of the struggle was the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL)’s vote to prepare a general strike if the state legislature approved Walker’s bill. Such a call from a major regional labor formation in the heat of a major struggle has not been seen in the U.S. in many decades, if ever. Unfortunately, most Wisconsin union leaders quickly got cold feet when it came to actually setting a date and preparing a genuine general strike. They came up with all kinds of legal arguments and other excuses not to build for it properly. Given this lack of leadership, and especially due to the lack of any serious pressure from within the unions themselves, the general strike idea has fizzled for now and the movement was successfully co-opted back to the Democrats and the recall campaign. But it is clear that broad layers of Wisconsin workers and youth favored the idea. The potential was there. The task of the revolutionary party is to make the potential, actual.

Although the struggle is far from finished, there are many lessons to be drawn from the experience, and I’m sure the comrades from Madison can give us more details. First of all, it shows that mass action does work. It also shows that when the workers move, they move through their traditional organizations, in the case of the U.S., the trade unions. And given the absolute vacuum of leadership on the ground in Madison, it shows the need for class struggle methods and class independent political leadership. It also shows the need for a political expression for the workers’ struggles to provide a real alternative to the Democrats and Republicans: a Labor party. Above all, it shows that the events of the last few decades and the last few years in particular have not gone unnoticed by the workers, and that they are increasingly aware that they are part of the working class and that they will have to fight to defend what they already have, let alone to improve their quality of life.

Election 2012

So now we look ahead to election 2012. This is a complex question, and much can happen in the next 18 months. Will Obama be re-elected? Will the “greater evil” again attain the presidency? We will work out our perspectives for the elections and our approach to them in our articles and editorials over the coming year, and in our 2012 U.S. Perspectives document and discussions at next year’s National Congress. But I think we can say one thing for sure: we cannot take a routine approach to electoral politics.

Given the crisis of capitalism, things are becoming increasingly polarized, and this is increasingly reflected in what used to be more or less “routine” bourgeois elections. In the context of the crisis, these “routine” elections are nothing but routine–see the recent Canadian and British elections for examples. The same goes for the United States. “Politics as usual” only applies during “usual” times, and these times are far from usual. The relative stability of the 1980s, 90s, and the 2000s is over. We now see wild swings in public opinion and wild swings of support behind one major party or the other, or more accurately, against one major party or the other. These swings are a reflection of the underlying economic instability, and are in turn reflected in the erratic and sometimes contradictory election results.

Right-wing Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich recently stated that the 2012 presidential election would be the most important since the 1860 election that brought Abraham Lincoln to power. Gingrich said that the U.S. is at a crossroads and that the re-election of Obama would lead to four more years of “radical left-wing values” that would drive the nation to ruin and that Obama is “the most successful food stamp president in modern American history.” Say what you will about this guy, he is a scholar of U.S. and Constitutional history, and he understands that there is a lot at stake, even if he doesn’t formulate it quite like we do.

In the 1860 elections, what was at stake was the future of slavery, as the capitalist North had gained the economic upper hand and was on the verge of permanently gaining the political upper hand. In the end, the pent up contradictions between these two opposing economic systems, living within the same nation state, could only be resolved through a prolonged and bloody Civil War. We all know what happened. The Civil War cleared the historical decks for the untrammelled rise and spread of U.S. capitalism across the continent and ultimately around the world. What is at stake in the coming period is the very future of that capitalist system. The working class majority is on the verge of a major upsurge of struggle, and the capitalists are unsure how to control it. Gingrich represents a layer of the ruling class which fears that if Obama gives out even the slightest concession, the appetite of the workers for more could get “out of control.” He prefers the hard line approach of sharp cuts and a clampdown on rights and dissent to prevent mass disorder. Others would like a “kinder, gentler” approach. As we know, some ruling class representatives prefer the carrot, others prefer the stick. The problem is, there are no carrots to be had.

Much will depend on the economy, world events, and on which direction the public mood is swinging in the weeks before the election and on election day itself. As we have seen in many countries in the recent period, the end result of an election can be very different than what the polls might indicate just weeks or even days earlier, and not only because of electoral fraud. If discontent with the Republicans is even greater than with the Democrats in 18 months’ time, Obama could well ride the “lesser” evil bandwagon to another term. In that case, we can be certain his anti-worker policies would be continued and intensified.

Some have raised the possibility of challenging Obama from the left in the primaries for the 2012 presidential election. Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, and others have been proposed as possible alternates. On one level this reflects a healthy rejection of Obama’s policies and a search for a genuine left solution. But the primary election system is tightly controlled by big business through its money and control of the media, and in practice, the Democrats would use it to again pull off yet another “bait and switch” by holding out the possibility of a more “progressive” candidate, only to offer the pro-war and pro-big business Obama in the end, calling on voters to “hold their noses” and vote for him anyway as the “lesser evil.” Such challenges may well emerge, but I think we can safely assume that Obama will be the Democratic candidate, barring some major, unforeseeable change in the situation. And given the unispiring—or just plain crazy—field of candidates the Republicans are lining up, it is also a distinct possibility that he may win again. No matter what happens, I think the 2012 elections will provide us big opportunities to connect our ideas and perspectives with our periphery, who are likely to be more politicized than ever.

The main thing to keep in mind is that no matter who wins in 2012, the working class will be the real loser. But no matter what the ruling class does to try and re-establish political equilibrium, it can only further destabilize the economic and social equilibrium. If a Scott Walker figure were to come to power on the national stage, we can be sure there would be a massive movement on a national scale to fight back against him—or her. No matter what the result of the 2012 elections, the stage will be set for an even more open-ended political battlefield in 2014, and even moreso in 2016, when an entirely new slate of candidates will take the field. We can confidently predict that interest in the Labor Party idea and campaign and in the ideas of the WIL will continue to grow. In this situation, we should find very fertile ground for the continued growth and development of our organization.

Conclusion

For a long time, workers in the U.S. didn’t want to accept what was happening around them. They looked for every possible way to avoid having to confront the reality of the situation. They took pay cuts. Worked overtime. Worked 2 or 3 jobs. Or just a part time job. The lived with a smaller house. Or sold the house and got an apartment. Or moved in with friends or family. Made do with one car instead of two. Or no car and rode the bus or a bike. No more family vacations. No more presents at Christmas. They would work longer before retirement, or forget about retirement altogether. Anything to cut corners and make ends meet. But sooner or later comes the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” In Wisconsin, that straw was Walker’s anti-union legislation. In other states and on a national scale, it could be any number of major or even seemingly secondary incidents.

Again, these attacks are not the result of the “bad will” of this or that politician or leader. As Alan Woods put it in his recent article on Spain: “Unemployment is not the result of bad policies by this or that government. It is an expression of the sickness of a whole system, that is to say, of capitalism. The problem is not the greed of certain individuals, nor is it the lack of liquidity or the absence of confidence. The problem is that the capitalist system on a world scale is in a complete blind alley.” These attacks are the necessary consequence of the systemic crisis of the capitalism. The capitalists must impose a “new normality,” a lower quality of life on the workers. This is the real meaning of the budget and the attacks on the public sector.

One of the greatest condemnations of the capitalist system is that it cannot make use of the all the extraordinary creativity and energy humanity has unleashed. Millions of workers, skilled and unskilled, manual laborers and those who work “with their brains,” all with something to contribute to society, are condemned to enforced idleness and unproductive inactivity against their will, because there are “too many workers” for the market to absorb. Factories are shut down, buildings stand empty, people live on the streets, starve to death and die of curable diseases, all because of the “invisible hand” of the market and the sanctity of the allmighty Dollar.

I think Marx and Engels said it best way back in the Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”

These days, with all the cuts to jobs and social services, the bourgeoisie isn’t even able feed or clothe or house the poorest of the poor in the most wealthy country on the planet. Millions of people with jobs are unable to make ends meet. And now they want to cut public assistance programs to the bone, precisely when millions of people are most in need.

12 months have passed since our last national discussion on U.S. Perspectives and what this means for our work. Another year for workers to draw conclusions on the basis of their experience. Many were disillusioned with Obama a year ago, and even more so are now, and yet this is tempered by the looming 2012 elections and threat of the even more openly vicious, and in many cases fanatical Republicans. There have been some significant movements of the workers in the last period, but it is true that there have been no broadly generalized and coordinated upsurges of Labor, strike waves, general strikes, mass national and regional demonstrations and protests on the streets.

To some, who have only a superficial understanding of history and society, the situation may seem bleak. But as Marxists, we see beyond the surface and aim to understand the complex processes unfolding just beneath it. We don’t have a crystal ball and cannot predict with absolute precision, but by applying the Marxist method, can work out the general trends and perspectives. This much is crystal clear: the capitalists have another thing coming if they think they can ram through these attacks without eventually eliciting a massive and overwhelming response.

So we must always keep in mind that changes in conditions inevitably produce changes in consciousness. The world is not static. The experience of the last few decades and especially of the last few years is imprinting itself on workers’ consciousness, and particularly on young workers, African Americans, and immigrants. We cannot base our perspectives for tomorrow solely on the experience of the past or on the reality of today.

Not long ago, at least historically speaking, the U.S. was a British colony. Even more recently, the majority of Blacks were chattel slaves, brutalized and worked to death, and held against their will by a handful of slave owners, all perfectly legal under the U.S. Constitution. Less than 100 years ago, women could not vote in this country. It was only a few decades ago that Blacks were allowed to ride in the front of the bus. Last year, 53% of Americans were opposed to gay marriage. Now, 53% are in favor. As the Economist recently pointed out, as recently as 2002, 80% of Americans agreed that the free-market system was the way to go. By 2009, that had fallen to 70%, and by last year, was at just 59%. Among the poorest in American society, support for the free market dropped from 76% to 44% in just one year. That means that a 56% majority are in favor of “something other than the status quo,” even if they are not entirely clear about what they do want.

The point is that things change. Individuals change. Entire layers of society can change their opinions, attitudes, and willingness to go out on the streets and fight, seemingly “out of the blue.” We saw this with the explosion of the immigrant workers in 2006. We have seen this in the supposedly “sleepy” Midwest state of Wisconsin. Around the world we have seen it in Tunisia, Egypt, France, Portugal, Britain, and now again in Spain and Greece.

When it comes to social relations, and particularly when it comes to politics and economics, it is important is to be aware of and manage people’s expectations. The “USA #1” and “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” rhetoric of the bourgeois has been taken to heart by millions of workers in the U.S. and around the world. The temporary, but very real improvement in the quality of life of millions over a period of several decades, has raised American workers’ expectations of what is possible and what is “right.”

The capitalists must now lower those expectations, because the system can no longer deliver. But American workers are not about to take this reduction in their standard of living lying down. In the increasingly contradictory period we have entered, we must keep our bearings and discern the order emerging from the apparent chaos. Armed with the ideas of Marxism and the rich and growing experience of the WIL and the IMT, we must collectively develop the political perspectives from which our priorities and organizational tasks flow. Our job is to differentiate the essential from the unessential, the general curve of development from the temporary ups and downs, and take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the current situation opens for us in order to build our organization and establish roots in the mass organizations of the working class and the youth. Together, we can and will lay the foundations for a serious revolutionary force in the “belly of the beast.”

John Peterson

May 28, 2011

Minneapolis, MN


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