What Next for Labor: How Can We Beat Back the Attacks?

In the course of 2012, two major industrial Midwestern states, Indiana and Michigan, have become so-called “Right to Work” states. This that means although unions must represent all the workers in unionized workplaces, workers who do not join the union can now “opt out” of paying union representation fees. It is the end of the “closed shop” in these states, a key victory of the labor movement in past struggles. The goal of big business is clearly to weaken the unions and then eliminate them all together.  

Until 2012, “Right to Work” states were limited to the South or rural western states. These are states where labor has historically been weaker. But no major industrial states in the Northeast or Midwest have had these laws until this year. How did labor lose these states? Is labor doomed to see past gains rolled back to nothing? Are workers powerless to fight back? Can we organize new workers like those in fast food, banks, and at companies like Wal-Mart?

Pro-capitalist policies lead to defeat

During the post-World War II capitalist boom it seemed to many that capitalism had achieved permanent stability. As long as the economy is growing and the capitalists are able to expand production there is relative prosperity. However, capitalism eventually suffers from a crisis of over-production as the capacity to produce commodities creates a situation where too many commodities are produced than can be sold at a profit. Facing a shrinking market, the capitalists are forced to cut production and close factories. This means growing unemployment, and with this, pressure to lower wages and benefits.

Profit comes from the exploitation of workers no matter how “highly paid” those workers are. New values are not created by simply adding up the value of raw materials. Value is created when the labor of workers transforms those raw materials into useful commodities that can be sold on the market. The capitalist derives profit from the value created by workers in the production process after wages and benefits are paid. As a result of this contradiction, the working class can never buy back, with their wages, all the value that they themselves produced.

It should also be noted that the rate of profit for a capitalist is inverse to the wages and benefits of the workers. The less the workers are paid and the faster that they work, the higher the profit for big business. This clash of interests alone explains why the union leadership’s plan of “team work with the bosses” always leads to disaster for the working class.

In a boom period, the capitalists are expanding production and the mass of profit grows, so militant battles by the working class can achieve improved working conditions, higher wages and better benefits to some extent. However, during periods of stagnation and decline, the capitalists will fight to the end to reduce wages and make their employees work faster for less. Only massive action from the united working class will make them concede, but this will be only a temporary breather until the bosses counter-attack. Ultimately, the only way to end this is to end capitalism and replace it with socialism and workers democracy.

In the mid-1970s, the prolonged post-World War II capitalist boom came to an end. However, the current labor leaders are living in the past and imagine that they can somehow “get along” with the capitalists. The leadership of the AFL-CIO, the National Educational Association, and Change to Win base themselves on the perspective that capitalism is the only system possible. Therefore they accept the logic, exploitation, inequality, and limits of this system. When the bosses say they are broke, the union leaders give up hard fought contractual gains. When the government says it has no money, the public employee union leaders do the same.

This process began with givebacks by the auto industry in the late 1970s and accelerated when Reagan broke the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. The labor leaders also accept all the anti-labor laws as a given. Rather than mobilizing the power of the membership to challenge the bosses and their government head on, they follow the laws, and of course, this keeps the disruption of business to a minimum. But if there is no disruption, why should big business and their politicians have to give in?

On the political level, the union leaders continue to support Democrats and some Republicans, looking for the “lesser evil.”  But both of these parties serve the interest of big business. Generally speaking, the Republicans want to eliminate the unions altogether and allow the employers to unilaterally impose conditions on the workers. The Democrats want to use the union leaders to convince the members to accept deteriorating conditions, to in effect reduce the unions to powerless, empty shells.  

So even if this means the Democrats are “marginally better,” the logic of the situation is that when the Democrats are in power, the worsening conditions that people find themselves in lead some workers to abstain from voting altogether, while others vote Republican hoping that they will somehow make things better. This is what brought the Republicans to power in Michigan: years of Democratic control of the state house did nothing to solve the problems of increasing unemployment and poverty.

However, even though this happened the Republicans could still have been stopped in their tracks. Why didn’t the Michigan AFL-CIO leadership get every union local and every workplace organized and let the politicians know: If this reactionary law passes, we are all going on a general strike! Michigan labor could have called on solidarity from other states and Canada as well. If the longshore workers on both coasts had seriously threatened and prepared to shut down all cargo coming in or out of the country during the busy holiday shopping season, the capitalists themselves would have put enormous pressure on the Michigan legislature not to pass the law. The unions also could have called on millions of non-union workers to support them, explaining that the unions were committed to fighting for union representation, wages, and benefits for all, and allocating resources to do precisely this. If this had happened, pressure would have been applied on the governor to veto the law and it would not have passed—at least for now.

Some labor successes

Nonetheless, in the midst of many defeats, labor has had some victories in the recent period.  The Chicago local of the AFT, under a more militant leadership, mobilized the membership and pushed back against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attacks. Longshore workers in Longview, Washington used class struggle tactics to stop scabs from stealing their jobs, and defended the right of the ILWU to represent all ports on the West coast. Restaurant workers in NYC have been fighting back as well, and are organizing new unions. Workers at Hot and Crusty, a chain owned by billionaire private equity investor Mark Sampson, won recognition despite the owner closing restaurants and locking out workers. The strikers opened their own “Worker Justice Cafe” outside of a closed restaurant, which was supported by donations from other NYC unions. In September, workers at celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Del Posto restaurant won union recognition and $1.15 million in back pay.

The Service Employees International Union has also helped launch “Fast Food Forward,” an umbrella organizing drive aimed at NYC’s 50,000 low-wage fast food workers. In early December, workers staged a wild-cat strike at a Wendy’s in Fulton Mall in Brooklyn to protest the firing of a worker, which was supported by many working class shoppers. Workers also protested outside McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants against low wages, and city-wide, around 200 workers refused to come to work on December 1st coinciding with the protests.

The clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the solidarity support of other ILWU workers also forced the bosses to back down. These workers had gone without a contract for over two years, and the employers were planning on “off-shoring” these jobs to Taiwan and Texas in order to lower wages and weaken the union. But even with every office worker on strike, these 800 workers alone would have been at the mercy of bosses. Marx explained that under capitalism, new techniques and machines—such as modern communications and data sharing technology—that could be used to increase productivity and make a worker’s labor lighter, are instead used to replace workers altogether, intensifying the exploitation of the remaining workers. In the case of workers in offices, call centers, and similar workplaces, the bosses leverage the fact that they can locate the workplace virtually anywhere on the planet as a threat over the workers’ heads. “If you strike or try to unionize, we will just close the office and move elsewhere!” In fact, in the hunt for lower wages and looser labor laws, they will often close these workplaces and go “offshore” whether workers try to unionize or not.

The clerical workers’ strike was in the end won by the refusal of ILWU longshore workers to cross the picket lines, which brought the movement of goods to a halt. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone account for around 40% of all imports entering the U.S., and by the end of the strike, the port bosses had lost $8 billion in profits. This was a limited solidarity strike. “Limited” in the sense that under the Taft-Hartley laws it is legal for unions to refuse to cross picket lines but not to strike their own employer in support of workers at other companies. In this case, the refusal to cross picket lines was in effect an undeclared strike in solidarity with the clerical workers. This shows the power of solidarity strikes, even if only partially. If the ILWU had shut down all the Pacific ports, it is likely this strike would have ended in a matter of days or hours instead of taking over a week, and the clerical workers could have won not just their major demands but all of their secondary demands as well.

What all these battles show is that if the membership is mobilized and willing to use militant tactics that stop production, including challenging and ignoring anti-labor laws like Taft-Hartley, which forbid solidarity strikes, the workers can hold off the worst of the attacks. However, until capitalism is eliminated altogether, the pressure will always exist for the bosses to drive down the standard of living. What they concede one day in the face of worker militancy, they will take back the moment labor lets down its guard. This is one reason the labor movement must adopt socialist policies.

The battle for unions at Wal-Mart

In the 1930s, the CIO grew from a little over one million members to five million members in a six-year period.  The key to this success was the United Auto Workers’ victory against America’s then-biggest employer, General Motors. Today, the labor movement could really start to turn things around by organizing the current biggest private employer:  Wal-Mart.  

The United Food and Commercial Workers has started a campaign to help workers at Wal-Mart organize, but if they really want to win, they have to maximize labor’s collective power in order to defeat such a huge multinational corporation. Such an enormous task must not be taken lightly! Unless a strategy is developed that takes on the entire company and is willing to apply the mobilized power of the working class, victory will not be possible. This is one employer that has shown its vicious determination to fight the unions to the end, going so far as to close stores altogether that unionized in Canada.

Although the UFCW has put important resources and hard-working staff into this campaign, this will not be enough in itself. The organization of Wal-Mart must be a multi-union campaign. All workers connected in any way to Wal-Mart’s production, supply, and distribution chain must be organized if we are to have the power to bring the entire machine to a grinding halt. If they are already in unions, they can play a key role. Longshore workers bring the goods into the ports. Truck drivers and railroad workers bring the goods from the ports to the warehouses, and from there to the stores. The workers in the retail stores and warehouses must be linked up to these crucial transport workers. In addition, utility, communication, construction, and janitorial workers—anyone and everyone involved in any way with Wal-Mart’s facilities at all levels—must be targeted for unionization or involvement in the campaign. To start, an organizing committee should be formed, made up of all the unions that represent or could potentially represent workers anywhere along this chain.

In addition, other workers need to be mobilized to help those directly connected to Wal-Mart, and in the process, they will strengthen their own position. In Illinois, for example, the Democratic General Assembly and governor are attempting to gut public sector pensions. The fund has a debt of $85 billion, and Illinois has the lowest credit rating of all 50 states. This is a recipe for Greek-style austerity at the state level, with the education system and infrastructure already in tatters. Each person in the state now “owns” nearly $10,000 in public debt. If the public employee union leaders explained how the success of unions in the private sector would help them to defend their pensions and other gains, this would bring many out to help.

The hundreds of demonstrations at Wal-Marts nationwide on Black Friday this past November should be seen as the beginning. Next time, if thousands of workers from a wide array of unions are mobilized to support, it would be possible to reduce business in the stores, if not close them down altogether. If this was done in coordination with the workers at the stores walking out, this would squeeze Wal-Mart hard and begin to build tremendous pressure. The more support that is shown to Wal-Mart’s workers, the more they will feel and be emboldened to exercise their enormous potential power. Not a wheel turns and not a light shines without the labor of the working class!

Some people will point out that Wal-Mart can subcontract to nonunion warehouses and trucking companies, something the company already does. The organizing committee must tell Wal-Mart that it will organize these subcontractors as well, and that it will hold Wal-Mart responsible for these employers. Pressure would be built up to force Wal-Mart to hire only union contractors or to take over the work itself and recognize the union. Unions like UFCW must also mobilize their members at other stores that compete with Wal-Mart to help this campaign. Wal-Mart and it’s competitors are all attacking the wages and benefits of their workers whether they are organized or not. The unionization of Wal-Mart workers would strengthen the position of all workers in the industry as well as embolden workers across all industries.

There is another lesson from the GM battles in the 1930s that can be applied to Wal-Mart. When the UAW won the Flint sit-down strike, GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the representative of all UAW members at GM, not only those at Flint. Rather than store-by-store organizing, the unions should seek to represent members at all Wal-Mart’s stores, warehouses, and other facilities, so they can use victories at even just a few workplaces as leverage to support organizing efforts at other locations. Once the union is recognized and starts to gain wages and benefits for its members, many other workers will join the union, strengthening it. This would have a snowballing effect throughout the retail industry and beyond.

Class struggle and socialist policies

Without the working class, there can be no construction, manufacturing, education, transportation, energy, health, social services, etc. The workers are the overwhelming majority in society and have tremendous potential power! However, this power is not being mobilized. The class collaboration policies of the current union leaders are good for the bosses but bad for the workers. The labor movement needs to recognize the class struggle: the fact that the working class and the capitalist class have nothing in common. Very definite conclusions flow from this understanding. If class struggle policies are adopted, the labor movement can come back from the defeats of recent decades more powerful than it has ever been. The class must fight back on the industrial arena, but also in politics, and for that it will need its own party.

The labor movement must defend all of the past gains and fight for a higher standard of living for all workers. But in the final analysis this means that capitalism must go. The “dirty little secret” the current labor leaders don’t want us to know is that most American unions were originally built by socialists, communists and various leftists. Labor unions were built to help the workers fight the boss at work and become “schools for socialism,” in that they would help the working class fight to end exploitation of man by man once and for all. We need fighting unions headed by leaders who are in touch with the members they represent. The leadership should not be paid more than the highest-paid members of the unions, and should not have all sorts of perks which in their conditions of life lift them above the working class and soften their attitude to the bosses.

Many of these leaders are now learning that as big business tries to eliminate their unions, their positions may be eliminated as well. This pressure from the bosses, along with pressure from the ranks, will lead some of them to change their policies in favor of a more militant position in the future. Those who do not change will be swept aside by a rising tide of rank-and-file militancy. However, only socialist, class struggle policies can ultimately bring about a powerful labor movement that can bring about a better life for all.

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