The American labour movement has had a rough few decades. After peaking at 34.8 percent in 1954, just 10.5 percent of US workers are in a union today and only 7.2 percent of private sector workers. With corporate profits, capital accumulation, market indices, and wealth inequality reaching mind-boggling levels, many shortsighted individuals gave up the ghost and conceded defeat to the capitalists. The best we could do, in their view, was roll over and beg for a few crumbs off their table. But “the darkest hour is before the dawn.” The US working class has not gone down for the count—not by a long shot—and we’re coming for the crumbs, the pie, and the table.
Over the last three decades, there has been a significant decline in the annual number of strikes in the US, along with a steep fall in union membership. Over that same period, the wealth of the top 1 percent rose by $21 trillion, while the poorest 50 percent saw their net worth fall by $900 billion. The world’s richest 1 percent are on course to control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030, as they sit on trillions of uninvested dollars. Something had to give.
Understanding the critical role played by labour unions in the day-to-day struggle between labour and capital, Marxists have predicted the revival of American labour for many years. After hitting rock bottom a few years ago, there was only one way to go for the working class: up.
Strike activity often ticks upward once the economy stabilises, even if only modestly, as workers gain confidence that they aren’t about to lose their jobs if they rock the boat. With corporate profits at ridiculous levels—including $2.3 trillion in profits last year alone—American workers want what’s theirs and have started to move into action.
US teachers and the school of struggle
Chicago’s teachers offered a first glimpse of what was coming back in 2012. But it takes years of internal preparation to properly build for a strike, which includes securing broader working-class support. So for many years, the progress wasn’t immediately apparent. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the slow subterranean simmer hit a rolling boil when 35,000 schoolteachers and staff in West Virginia launched a strike in January 2018, protesting a measly 1 percent pay raise. The work action shut down every public school in the state for a week until lawmakers agreed to give them a 5 percent raise and to freeze health insurance premiums temporarily.
A chain reaction of teachers’ strikes spread from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Arizona, California, and beyond, as the struggles and victories of others inspired similar actions around the country. By the end of 2018, the number of US workers involved in major work stoppages, which includes strikes and lockouts, was the highest since 1986. There were twenty stoppages in total, each involving 1,000 or more workers, compared to just seven in 2017, the highest level since 2007. More than 90 percent of the roughly half-a-million workers involved were in the education, health care, and social assistance industries. Thousands more participated in smaller strikes and struggles not reflected in these figures.
There are roughly 130 million workers in the US, not counting nonworking members of their families. And yet, despite accounting for just one-third of one percent of the US workforce, 2018’s strikers dramatically transformed the class-struggle landscape. And it is only the beginning. As recently the 1990s, there was an average of 34 strikes per year. In the 1980s, 69 per year; and in the 1970s, an average of 269. Although it will not be a linear process, there is plenty of room for growth.
Already, by the end of last year, the wave of struggle had spread to the private sector. In December, nearly 8,000 housekeepers, bartenders, and other service workers walked off the job at two dozen hotels in Detroit, Boston, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, Maui, and Oahu. This was the largest hotel workers’ strike in US history, and again, some concrete gains were achieved. In addition to wage increases, the new contract will force Marriott to provide GPS-enabled panic buttons for housekeepers, to alert security staff if they feel unsafe with a guest when cleaning a room. The company has also had to agree to ban guests who have a history of sexually harassing workers.
This spring, 31,000 workers walked off the job at 241 Stop & Shop grocery stores across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Their fight against proposed cuts to their health care, pensions, and overtime pay ended in a partial victory, with wage increases for all workers and no change to their health plans. The strikers had overwhelming local support, with many customers refusing to cross picket lines and bringing meals to workers protesting outside the stores.
And in Oregon, teachers recently walked out, shutting down 600 schools, not for higher wages or benefits, but for smaller classroom sizes, more nurses, librarians, art, music, and physical education programs, school supplies, etc. 94 percent of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies “to make up the difference between what their students need and what districts can provide.”
These are social demands that benefit everyone, which exposes the lie about the alleged “greed” of union teachers. Significantly, some of the recent strikes and walkouts have moved beyond questions of economics and quality of life into the realm of politics. Workers are leveraging their power as the producers of society’s wealth by withholding their labour to push for political change as well. From Silicon Valley tech workers to furniture company Wayfair, workers have walked out to protest their employers’ collaboration with the government’s immigrant detention and deportation machine. And following their contract victory in 2018, West Virginia teachers struck again in early 2019 to protest the state legislature’s efforts to privatise education—a blatant act of retribution against union strikers.
A “militant minority” of rank-and-file activists has pushed these recent struggles forward—individuals with a more or less clear class-struggle orientation, organising experience, a willingness to confront and override their own leadership, and in many cases, some who consider themselves to be socialists of some stripe or another. While a clear-cut class-struggle wing of the labour movement has yet to emerge, the outlines of one are discernible.
Pressure on labour leaders
And it is not merely the growing number of strikes that is pregnant with implications for the future. It is also the attitude of workers and young people to unions, and the increasing awareness of what it means to be working class. There is an undeniable resurgence of class consciousness and interest in getting organised in a union. Public opinion of labour unions reached a 15-year high in 2018, according to Gallup—no thanks to the unions’ leadership.
The pressure is building in the AFL-CIO, which has long been a bastion of conservatism and craven class collaboration. The country’s main labour federation, it represents 12.5 million active and retired workers in 55 national and international unions. The potential power of such an organisation to mobilise millions of workers in strikes, solidarity strikes, and even general strikes is colossal. But that’s the last thing the current leadership wants.
The AFL-CIO’s President, Richard Trumka, is under attack for being a “failed leader” and for trying to accommodate Trump instead of leading the fight against him. There is no real organising taking place. And while plenty of money has been spent to build the clique around Trumka, little of substance has been done to fight for the workers. After ten years with Trumka at the helm, there is anger and resentment at all levels, especially since he came from a class-struggle background and seemed to promise a change from the “bad old days” under John Sweeney and his predecessors. With the AFL-CIO holding leadership elections in 2021, and Trumka unlikely to run for reelection, the objective stranglehold on workers’ struggle posed by the current labour leadership is likely to be loosened, one way or another.
Into the fray steps Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a gutsy leader in a strategic sector of workers. Earlier this year, she called for a general strike to end Trump’s border wall government shutdown. Her call and a wave of “sick-ins” by air traffic control workers quickly put an end to the shutdown. As Nelson put it: “Only direct action—or the threat of it—will move the boss.”
She’s a fresh face with an audacious attitude and would definitely give Trumka or his hand-picked successor a run for their money if she makes a bid for the AFL-CIO’s top position. She also has a solid record of fighting for women’s rights in the workplace and against the rampant sexual harassment in the airline industry. Compare this to the good-old-boys network of Trumka and his clique.
If she were to run and succeed in unseating the Trumka gang, it would represent a significant change, even if she kept her program fairly limited. After the drought of the last few years, it would almost certainly unleash many of the pent-up forces just waiting to burst to the surface. Whether by design or by default, a further upsurge in unionisation and strike activity would be all but guaranteed. The urgent need to break with the Democrats and Republicans and to build a mass workers’ party based on the unions would also be put on the agenda at a certain stage—something Nelson could play a key role in pushing forward if she made this a central plank of her activity.
All of this will unfold in the context of the 2020 presidential elections. If the next economic crisis breaks out in earnest in the next few months, things will really be up in the air. The class struggle and polarisation of American society can accelerate more quickly than anyone expects—including to the right—but above all, to the left. One cannot judge the most likely course of future events by basing oneself only on the experience of the immediate past.
The inspiring events in Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Honduras, Brazil, Czech Republic, Switzerland, New Zealand, and beyond are proof positive that the workers of the world are full of fight—and American workers are not too far behind. The “molecular process of revolution” is percolating here as well. The recent wave of strikes and rising interest in socialism are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This is why reactionaries from Donald Trump to Lindsey Graham feel compelled to red-bait and mock socialism and communism.
In the coming years, American workers will be forced to learn the hard way that socialism is about much more than voting for someone who promises to provide universal healthcare or to write off student debt. As important as such reforms are, if they are not linked to a struggle for the overall socialist transformation of society, they will remain limited and in constant danger of being rolled back.
As long as wage labour is exploited by capital, as long as there are classes, workers will need to band together to defend our collective interests. labour unions are an indispensable first line of defence in the class struggle. The road to recovering the class-struggle methods that made labour a force to be reckoned with in the first place will not be easy. But the way forward has been indicated by the self-sacrificing actions of hundreds of thousands of workers over the last few months.
As inspiring as these struggles have been—and even more titanic contests between the workers and bosses are on the horizon—economic struggles in the workplace and social struggles in the streets are not sufficient. To transform the world, the working class must concurrently wage a political struggle. This means fighting for our own party, under our own banner, in our own interests.
Winning political and economic power is the working class’s essential strategic task, the axis around which all secondary strategies and tactics must be subordinated. The struggle for socialism must, therefore, also be waged on the ideological plane. The opponents of revolutionary socialism—both on the left and the right—will seek to confuse and conflate the truth about what genuine socialism is and isn’t. The IMT will continue to meet our opponents with facts, figures, and political arguments, supremely confident that the ideas of Marxism—and the working class—will win out in the end.