In May of 2005, the common council of Syracuse, N.Y. passed a living wage ordinance, forcing companies doing business with the city to pay their workers at least $10.08 an hour, or $11.91 an hour if their company doesn’t provide health benefits. The ordinance affects about 200 workers in the city.
Workers greeted the wage increase enthusiastically. The common council had rejected the ordinance in the past, and put off dealing with it for three years. But finally, the efforts of the workers have been rewarded. Eddie Walker, a parking attendant for the city, commented on the changes: "It means I won't have to flip a coin to decide what bills I'm going to pay. It means I can pay bills with a good heart. Now it's like robbing Peter to pay Paul."
This victory was accomplished primarily through the patient efforts of the Working Families Party, a small labor-based party in New York State. The party lobbies Republicans and Democrats in order to get them to support some of the points on their platform. They were instrumental in pushing a living wage ordinance in New York City and Westchester County. They also helped to institute drug law reform, getting rid of New York’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws (93 percent of the people locked up in N.Y. for drug offenses are African American or Latino, most of them minor offenders with no history of violent behavior).
This alone, however, is hardly mass independent working class action. While helping to pull a small number of workers out of poverty is a step forward, the situation for most workers remains grim. Although important, these minor victories can never succeed in freeing the majority of workers from the harsh reality of privation, struggle and uncertainty. In the end it will only strengthen the politically bankrupt two-party system by patching up holes in their platform and policies. If working people ever hope to realize their aspirations for a better life, they can only rely on their own strength: on a class-independent mass party of labor based on the unions.
While this is a victory that will improve hundreds of lives, there are tens of thousands of workers in Syracuse who will not experience any wage increase. They will continue to live in abject poverty, misery and powerlessness. The reality of this city remains unchanged: crumbling and failing schools, unemployment, slums, street violence, and a predatory and racist police force. This situation exists in every city and town of America, many of which also have living wage ordinances.
Working people have power when they organize. But it is not enough to petition the bosses and their cronies in government to throw a few crumbs to those at the bottom. The Republicans and Democrats both implement virulently anti-labor policies. This city has lived under a Democratic administration for years. This country has experienced both Democratic and Republican periods of rule. And despite the constant changing of hands, one thing remains the same: the poor get poorer and the rich get richer!
Working people know what they want: a steady job that pays them enough to live a dignified life; a system of health care geared toward human need, not corporate profits; cheap housing that can’t be taken away from them; a quality education for their children; an end to union victimization and anti-labor laws.
These are not pipedreams. They are achievable if working people organize themselves into a real mass party of labor; one that doesn’t attempt to influence the two bosses’ parties but can stand on its own two feet in order to force these parties out of power. Eugene Debs once wrote on this same subject: “It is a fact amazing as it is humiliating that the workers of the United States, the most advanced industrial nation on the globe, are practically the only ones who have no political party of their own, being content to give their support to the corrupt and enslaving parties of their masters, and meekly bowing their necks to the yoke of injunction rule.”
The American working class has a strong, militant tradition. This tradition has not been forgotten. Injustice, poverty, racism and unemployment cry out for change. Working people alone can bring about this change by organizing their own political party. The time to do so is now.