What slogans to advance the workers’ struggle?
Published Apr 28, 2011 9:04 PM
Every great struggle has a rallying cry.
The French Revolution of 1789 saw the masses storming the Bastille for
“Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” The workers and peasants in the
Russian Revolution of 1917 called for “Bread, Peace and Land.”
What will be the stated goal for the emerging mass struggle in the United
What can union leaders across this country be thinking when they advance the
slogan “Defend the Middle Class”? This slogan isn’t just
coming from one or two confused individuals. It has been promoted by AFL-CIO
International President Richard Trumka, United Auto Workers President Bob King,
and countless state and local union leaders.
Of course, these union officials should be commended for finally calling mass
protests against the vicious union-busting, wage- and benefit-cutting
onslaught, especially against public workers. Workers have been eagerly
responding by the thousands and tens of thousands — in Wisconsin by the
hundreds of thousands — to the numerous marches and rallies as they see
their right to bargain collectively destroyed, their wages slashed and their
pensions threatened. A long-delayed mass fightback seems to be taking
But raising the banner “Defend the Middle Class” at the front of
this movement is not only an inaccurate description. It is also harmful to the
very struggle they are trying to promote. The Merriam-Webster on-line
dictionary describes the middle class as “occupying a position between
the upper class and the lower class ... composed principally of business and
professional people, bureaucrats, and some farmers and skilled
While most workers may not have consulted Merriam-Webster, they know they are
part of the working (disparagingly called “lower”) class.
It is true that some union leaders, like UAW’s Bob King, explain that
they support workers “in having and maintaining a decent middle-class
standard of living.” (Solidarity, March/April 2011) But in the next
paragraph he confuses a decent standard of living with the “need to
rebuild the Great American Middle Class.”
Why can’t these union leaders come out and say they are defending the
working class and the right of all human beings to a decent standard of
Following World War II, the labor unions and their leadership in the U.S. were
shaped by two powerful forces. First, the capitalist ruling class of bankers
and corporate bosses, along with their bought-and-paid-for politicians, opened
up a political attack to drive most socialists and communists out of the unions
— unions they had often founded.
Second, the pre-eminent economic and military position of the United States
worldwide led that same ruling class to distribute a few crumbs to a section of
the U.S. working class. From around 1947 to 1972 the average standard of living
rose 50 percent. For those workers who benefited from this rise, class struggle
concepts seemed unnecessary.
Talk of the “working class” and the “capitalist class”
disappeared from their vocabulary. Workers were now called
“employees” or “associates.” Some theoreticians
advanced the idea that this ideology was dead, such as Daniel Bell in his 1960
book “The End of Ideology.”
Relearning the class struggle
The current ruling-class offensive against the workers and the unions catches
most union leaders untrained in class struggle action. Even where they may
sincerely want to put up a fight, and are gathering their troops to do battle,
they are hampered by misconceptions. Perhaps they fear that the ruling class
will attack them for fomenting “class struggle.” Maybe they also
fear that their own members might not respond to a call to build a fighting,
mass, working-class-led struggle.
Certainly there was a time when many better-paid, unionized industrial workers
looked down upon those below them on the economic ladder. But today those same
workers have been laid off by the hundreds of thousands. Plant closings and
outsourcing overseas have decimated the once-powerful industrial unions.
Many workers have accepted savage wage/benefit cuts, while newly hired
autoworkers are being paid half the wages of older autoworkers in a system
called “two tier.” Teachers and public workers in many fields are
seeing firsthand that they have no job security or rights respected by the
Now is precisely the time when clear and correct slogans are needed to rally
and educate the millions of workers entering into the struggle.
We can’t go back to the time when only a small percent of the workers
enjoyed a “middle-class standard of living.” It isn’t only
that. The ruling class won’t allow it.
More importantly, that reactionary vision leaves out the vast majority of other
workers who have no unions.
It leaves out the unemployed and underemployed, who now number 30 million
It leaves out the millions of undocumented and persecuted workers.
It leaves out the disabled and homeless, the victims of racism, sexism and
All of them are part of the vast working class of the United States. All of
them are also looking for a decent standard of living. Calls to defend or
rebuild the “middle class” can only serve to alienate and insult
the majority of the working class, exclude them from the struggle and weaken
the ability of our class to fight back and win.
Time to revive working-class slogans
The fact that this so obviously erroneous slogan was quickly taken up across
the country by most prominent union leaders makes one think that it emerged
from internal discussion that included some think-tank
The close relationship of the unions to the Democratic Party and the
unions’ long-time, overriding dependence on electoral rather than mass
struggle make it reasonable to assume that the union leaders are using this
slogan to really appeal to — not their own members — but the actual
Since a large part of the workers, the unemployed and the poorest people of the
country don’t vote most of the time, and a significant part of the middle
class has come under Tea Party/Republican influence, union leaders may think
they can woo them to a progressive position with this slogan for the next
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the working class and its organizations
putting forth slogans to support middle-class groupings that are suffering from
the economic attack by the banks and corporations. But only a powerful
working-class struggle that unites all parts of the working class for jobs,
health care, housing, education, decent wages and pensions — only this
kind of fighting force — can and will draw behind it a growing section of
the middle class.
It is time to revive working-class consciousness and a working-class struggle
in the streets. For that we need working-class slogans.
Sole, a member of the United Auto Workers for the past 40 years, is
past-president of UAW Local 2334, Detroit.
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