Low-wage workers on the move

A Marxist approach to the problems of the working-class movement

The following is based on a talk to a Workers World Party meeting on June 14.  Goldstein is a member of the WWP Secretariat and author of “Low-Wage Capitalism” and “Capitalism at a Dead End.” The talk has been slightly edited for publication.

The greatest problem facing the labor movement, the political movement and all progressive movements fighting for the workers and oppressed in this period is how to help revive working-class resistance in this country.

The effort to promote workers’ assemblies could potentially be an important contribution to beginning the process. The first real workers’ assembly of this period — the Southern Workers Assembly held in Charlotte, N.C., in September 2012 — was largely the work of our allies, the Black Workers for Justice, and our comrades in North Carolina. This assembly was heavily based upon the unions. As such it has enormous potential.

Of course, such assemblies must become magnets not only for organized workers but for all the oppressed and exploited, the organized, unorganized, unemployed and everyone oppressed by capitalism. And we must continue to try to strike a balance between the political struggle and the economic struggle.

But my topic for tonight is to examine the recent walkouts and demonstrations of low-wage workers that have caught everyone’s attention and to discuss the significance of these events.

Low-wage workers take to the streets

People are probably familiar with the Our Walmart demonstrations, especially the 100 protests held on Nov. 23 last year and the one at the company’s annual meeting this June 7 in Bentonville, Ark. These demonstrations spread from Walmart to fast food and other low-wage industries.

The following comes from reports about some of the other walkouts:

On Nov. 29, 2012, some 200 workers in New York carried out job actions at Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants. This was organized by Fast Food Forward, which is supported by the Service Employees union and its New York chapter, Local 32BJ.

A worker who participated, Raymond Lopez, is an aspiring actor who worked at McDonald’s for two and a half years. He said, “In this job, having a union would really be a dream come true,” as $8.75 an hour “is really living in poverty.”

In Chicago on April 4 of this year, hundreds of fast food and retail workers walked out of McDonald’s, Subway, Macy’s, Sears and Victoria’s Secret demanding a wage floor of $15 an hour and the right to organize a union without retaliation.

“I think I’m doing more than what I should, and for $8.25 it’s not enough,” said Esly Hernandez, a striking Dunkin’ Donuts worker. “They don’t even appreciate the work that I do. They don’t even say thank you. They treat you like a robot.”

Hernandez, who has a four-year-old son with anemia, said he is sometimes forced to choose between buying medically recommended nutrition for his son or paying his electric bills.  It is conditions like this that have led some to call the U.S. economy the “McJobs economy.”

In May in Detroit, as many as 400 workers at more than 60 fast-food restaurants in the Detroit metro area walked off the job.

The strike shut down multiple establishments, including a McDonald’s, Long John Silver’s, Burger King, two Popeyes and a KFC. McDonald’s management called in replacement workers, but they joined the picket line. The $15-an-hour campaign as well as unionization were the demands.

It is important to note that there are now 50,000-plus fast-food employees in the Detroit Metro area, double the number of auto workers. These 50,000 workers, if they worked 40 hours a week, would make $16,500 a year, which is near poverty level. But most of them work only 15 to 20 hours.

In St. Louis on May 8, over 100 workers from 30 establishments, including McDonald’s, Jimmy John’s, Wendy’s and Domino’s, walked out, with the backing of the SEIU, the Teamsters, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union, the Food and Commercial Workers union and the AFL-CIO. A $15-an-hour and union rights campaign in the city includes the slogan, “Can’t survive on $7.35,” the Missouri minimum wage.

In Milwaukee, McDonald’s, T.J. Maxx and other companies were hit by walkouts demanding $15 an hour and unionization. Kenny Mack, a maintenance worker at McDonald’s who makes $10 an hour and has an 18-month-old daughter, had to move back in with his mother because he could not afford his rent.

In Milwaukee, the workers set up an ongoing committee in order to form their own union.

Between 100 and 400 workers in Seattle forced the closing of a Taco Bell and had stoppages at McDonald’s, Chipotle, Subway and Burger King. The action was called by Good Jobs Seattle.

Much more organizing of low-wage workers is being carried out all over the country by UNITE HERE, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, SEIU and other unions at airports, malls, universities, hotels, car washes, cafeterias and other businesses.  Workers walked out at Giant Stadium in San Francisco. And for the first time in 20 years, casino workers sat down and blocked the Las Vegas strip.

Response to low-wage capitalism: a harbinger

These examples should not be taken to mean that there is a great strike wave, or that Wal-Mart Stores Inc., with its 4,000-plus stores in the U.S. and 1.2 million workers, or McDonald’s with 14,000 stores and 400,000-plus workers, are going to be organized by these methods.

Many in unions that organize low-wage workers are justifiably skeptical about the motives of the SEIU top leadership in fostering these demonstrations, because of the negative role this leadership has played in the past. But the motives or role of the SEIU are not what is important for revolutionaries and militant trade unionists to focus on. The focus should be on the workers who participated. There has been a truly multinational outpouring that showed tremendous spirit and fight.

This organizing is both symptomatic of the willingness of low-wage workers to take great risks and a demonstration of the natural response of the growing low-wage working class that has been created by the scientific-technological revolution and the low-wage stage of capitalism and imperialism. It is a reminder to every working-class organization to pay close attention.

Low-wage capitalism requires higher forms of organization

Each new stage of capitalist development brings about unprecedented conditions for the workers. This is inevitable because capitalism continually revolutionizes the means of production. This has been the history of capitalism from simple cooperation in the earliest stages, to the manufacturing stage, to the industrial stage, to the mass production stage and now to the high-tech stage.

And each new stage poses new and, at first, overwhelming problems for the workers as they try to adjust to the new conditions of exploitation. And each new stage in the development of the productive forces requires a new and higher form of working-class organization.

To get some brief historical perspective, the previous phase of mass production — or Fordism as it is sometimes called because of the assembly line first introduced by Henry Ford in 1913 — destroyed innumerable skilled jobs and subjugated the workers to the assembly line. They had no industrial unions. Only craft workers were organized into the AFL trade unions. The new mass production proletariat was subject to arbitrary speedup, the brutal authority of supervisors, dismissal at will and so on.

When industrial workers tried to organize in steel, meatpacking  and other industries, their union drives were smashed because of unemployment and because of a politically reactionary climate that allowed the bosses to win.

But as industry grew, so did mass production and the semiskilled industrial working class. The workers eventually overcame the problems of organizing unions. They carried out municipal general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis. These were followed by a wave of sit-downs and plant occupations, culminating in the Flint sit-down strike at General Motors. These struggles led to the organizing of millions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations, despite resistance from the conservative AFL leadership.

Much of the detail concerning this era is described in the book “Low-Wage Capitalism.”

The present high-tech, low-pay stage of capitalism is engulfing the working class as never before.  Sam Marcy, the late founder and chairperson of Workers World Party, foresaw this in his classic work, “High Tech, Low Pay,” written in 1985.

Workers in slowly developing crisis for decades

It is important to say that the working class in the U.S. was in a slowly developing crisis long before the economic and financial collapse of 2008-2009. This collapse only accelerated and sharpened the crisis of the masses.

The bosses long ago set up a worldwide wage competition, pitting workers against one another all over the world and pitting workers in the U.S. against each other. Workers in Detroit had to compete with workers in Mexico and China as well as with auto workers in the nonunion, “right-to-work” South.

Millions of undocumented workers, fleeing U.S.-imposed poverty in their homelands, augmented the low-wage workforce and were vulnerable to extreme superexploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Many jobs were sent into the prison-industrial complex, forcing furniture workers, ticket booking agents and many other workers to compete with near slave prison labor. And so on.

The technological downsizing and offshoring in manufacturing allowed the capitalists to go from a relatively livable-wage manufacturing economy to a low-wage service economy — which at the present time is disproportionately Black, Latino/a, Asian and immigrant, with women at the lower end of the pay scale.

Real wages in the U.S. have been declining since 1979 and the single-earner family is ancient history, except for the rich and the upper middle class.

Going back to fundamentals: class organization

How do we approach this situation as Marxists?

First we must go back to fundamentals. We must remind ourselves of our fundamental task and the task of the working class and the oppressed — who today make up the bulk of the working class. In addition to superexploitation on the job, the oppressed suffer from racism, sexism and/or homophobia in all spheres of political, economic and social life under divide-and-conquer capitalism.

It is the historic task of the working class to emancipate itself and in the process destroy capitalism and liberate all of society.  The working class in capitalist society is a revolutionary class because it makes everything go, it creates all wealth. It is now more deeply interconnected than ever — that is, socialized — by the interconnected processes of capitalist production, distribution and services. It is in a supremely strategic position to take over all of society and expropriate the exploiters and the oppressing capitalists. Karl Marx explained this 165 years ago, and it is still true today.

The very process of class exploitation and oppression will drive our class inevitably towards resistance. We must never forget that, no matter what the situation looks like at any given moment.

Having said that, we must look reality in the face and not deceive ourselves or the workers.

Right now, the workers as a whole in the United States have yet to reach the stage of militant defensive struggle, such as is taking place in parts of Europe. There are a few outstanding recent exceptions:  the Republic Windows and Doors workers who seized their plant in Chicago in 2008; the Wisconsin workers who occupied the state Capitol for two weeks in 2012; the Chicago teachers’ union, which this year organized a truly mass struggle based on an alliance with the community. These are just some examples, not meant to be an exhaustive list.

But by and large, the workers have been taking blow after blow and have been unable to mount any significant struggles, even of a defensive character. The next stage of the struggle must be to organize a defense.

And this really means for the working class to advance itself as a class. It means for the millions of low-wage workers to go beyond being privately angry, fed up and disgusted and move towards defense and class consciousness. In this respect, the low-wage workers’ demonstrations must be regarded as a harbinger of things to come.

Unions fundamental to working-class progress

The struggle to organize into unions and defend against direct exploitation on the job is what Karl Marx called an inevitable and necessary stage. V. I. Lenin, the architect of the Bolshevik revolution, said that organization was the only real weapon that the working class has. Union and strike struggles have been characterized as a revolution in embryo.

The struggle for the working class to revive itself as a class can have a strong political component, which could make social demands and direct its fire against the capitalist political establishment. But the working class also needs the experience of class combat at the workplace, the taste of victory over the bosses.  This will immeasurably increase its power within capitalist society.

The workers must be able to use their own ingenuity, creativity and aggressiveness to protect themselves and to curtail the power of the bosses over working conditions, wages, etc.

This is the fundamental element that will give them confidence as a class and help them move onto the offensive. Both the class struggle and revolution are class war. Organizing the workplace is a vital necessity, however it comes about. It may not necessarily happen shop by shop, but could encompass hundreds and thousands of shops, as took place in the sweeping upsurge of the 1930s.

Facing the difficulties ahead

Right now, this road to working-class development seems to be blocked. Large numbers of workers who used to be centralized have been driven out of the factories into retail stores and services of all kinds. The ruling class wields extraordinary wealth and power and its concentration of wealth grows with each quarterly report.

Indeed, the difficulties in combatting the present crisis situation of the workers are monumental. Even under the best of conditions, the challenges are formidable and no one should underestimate them.

The union leadership is overwhelmed by these conditions. They want to do something about it. The low-wage workers’ demonstrations, backed by the SEIU and UFCW, and the calls by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka for an open conference in September to brainstorm over what to do are symptoms that the problems of the high-tech, low-pay era are rising to the consciousness of the labor leaders.

At least on paper, they say they want to turn towards the community and immigrants, which is highly progressive. It remains to be seen how this will be implemented.

Glass is half full, not half empty

As Marxists we must approach this issue firmly, not just throw up our hands and say we don’t have the answers and are looking for advice.

Lifting morale and shifting the perspective is a major part of the problem.

The capitalist media never tire of talking about how the organized labor movement has shrunk from 35 percent of the workforce down to 11 percent. They love to demoralize and dwell on the weakness of the movement.

But we should point out that before the greatest leap forward in the history of the U.S. working class, the labor movement had shrunk from 20 percent of the workforce in 1920 to only 10 percent in 1930. But that did not prevent the great upsurge when the time came and the workers were ready.

The real weakness of the labor movement does not lie in numbers alone. Nor does the strength of the ruling class lie primarily in its technology or in its vast wealth and its repressive apparatus.

The strength of the ruling class lies fundamentally in its ideological domination over the workers and in the historic retreat of the labor leadership over decades that has left it unable to muster the vast potential of the strategic class in society: the working class along with all the oppressed.

Workers instinctively move toward solidarity

Of course, the bourgeoisie looks unconquerable when the antagonistic class, the exploited class, has not stood up. The labor leaders say they do not know what to do. But the working class knew what to do when the Republic Windows and Doors workers seized their plant. They sent supplies and messages of solidarity from all over the country. However, that solidarity was never mobilized by the labor leadership on behalf of the struggle.

When the workers and students of Wisconsin occupied the Capitol in Madison, someone in the leadership whispered “general strike” and the idea immediately caught on. But just as soon as it was put forward, it was withdrawn in favor of a recall election that derailed the struggle.

The Chicago teachers knew what to do when they organized community, student and local union support against school closings, standardized testing, merit pay and so on. But they were left on their own by the labor leaders when the city shut down 59 schools, mainly in the Black and Latino/a communities.

The leaders use the alleged weakness of the unions as a shield to justify their own timidity. But we don’t look at the figure of 11 percent. We look at the 15-million-strong, unionized labor force that can be mobilized to support the class struggle, including and especially low-wage workers who dare to come off the job to protest.

We look at the hundreds of millions of dollars in workers’ union dues that could be redeployed from the coffers of the Democratic Party and directed toward carrying out organizing drives and other struggles.

We look at the tens of thousands of union volunteers who pound on doors at election time and visualize them as volunteers in the struggle instead.

We must have ultimate faith in our class and see a path to the revival of the movement. We see the glass as half full. The capitalists want us to see it as half empty.

Rebuilding the labor movement; class solidarity vs. Taft-Hartley

Of course, we must also confront the present problems of the labor movement and the workers’ movement in general and look reality in the eye. Even if we cannot immediately solve the problems, the road to the solution lies in first stating them.

First of all, the configuration of the labor movement, with its organizational reflexes of territoriality and interunion competition, is absolutely unsuitable to launching the kind of classwide struggle that is necessary to do battle in the period of high-tech globalization.

The scientific-technological revolution, the rise of the vast retail and service proletariat, the internationalization of capitalist production — all this requires levels of classwide solidarity and collaboration on a scale never before confronted by the workers.

The vast centralization of capital means that any attempt to really improve the conditions of the workers requires going up against the ruling class as a whole.

Under such conditions, having 55 different unions, not even linked in a confederation, with no obligation or process requiring them to act in unison, is completely archaic. The AFL-CIO is mostly a lobbying, public relations and research organization in which each union is largely autonomous and free to do as it pleases, to pursue the immediate interests of its members — or not, as the case may be — without regard to the needs of the union movement or the class struggle as a whole.

This antiquated structure is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of the new low-wage, decentralized proletariat. It is just as outmoded today as was the American Federation of Labor, a grouping of narrow craft unions, during the rise of mass production and the assembly line.

Either the present structure must be reconfigured or infused with the spirit of cooperation, unity and solidarity in the struggle. This can only be done from below — perhaps by some new movement, such as a shop stewards’ movement , a workers’ assembly movement or other formations.

Second, in the spirit of Karl Marx’s speech to the First International in 1866, the labor movement cannot progress until it represents the interests and the struggles of all the unorganized, all the oppressed.

In today’s context, this means, among other things, organizing the millions of unemployed; organizing the South; defending immigrants and fighting deportations; fighting racism, police brutality, and stop and frisk; defending women’s rights, on and off the job, and LGBTQ rights; opposing imperialist war; and so forth.

This may be a maximum program, but it is the direction the labor movement must go in if it is to succeed. It means a lot more than just “reaching out.” It means getting into the living struggle and giving hands-on support.

Third, so long as the workers are hampered by repressive anti-labor legislation in their actions, in their ability to carry out broad struggles, their hands are tied. And as long as the labor movement tries to restrict its activities to fit within the framework allowed by the Taft-Hartley law, which was originally branded as the slave labor law, then class solidarity cannot be carried out in a meaningful way.

If the workers in a fancy steakhouse, for example, cannot set up a picket line outside the supplier of steaks because that would be considered an illegal “secondary boycott,” then they are immeasurably weakened.

If the Teamsters cannot decide to support a strike by the textile workers and walk out in solidarity because it is a secondary boycott, then the working class can never unleash its potential and exercise its power as a class.

If, for example, truck drivers, dock workers, maritime workers, package delivery workers, warehouse workers, assembly line workers, government service workers, and other categories of the 15-million-strong organized working class were to be deployed in a common struggle, then class relations that are now so detrimental to the workers could be favorably transformed. The potential is there.

This does not mean waiting until a political campaign gets the capitalist-run Congress to take up a repeal of the Taft-Hartley law — although for propaganda purposes this would be very helpful and progressive. It means going past the law, doing what is necessary and being prepared to escalate the struggle against the inevitable retaliatory measures, including heavy fines.

Finally, Sam Marcy stated the overall problem as succinctly as it can be stated. As long as the labor movement confines itself to operating within the limitations of the framework set by the capitalists — that is, “being competitive” or recognizing the “sanctity of property” or making “common cause between labor and capital,” etc. — it cannot do anything but retreat. Breaking out of the capitalist framework is fundamental.

These are just some of the issues facing the labor movement that communists need to consider and to strategize about. Even if the party is not in a position right now to take many concrete steps towards solving these problems, it is necessary to discuss them and other lesser matters so as to be able to develop a perspective later on.

If it were possible to develop workers’ assemblies composed of the most progressive sectors of the labor movement while including the undocumented, the unorganized and the community, these assemblies could make an invaluable contribution to a revival of the struggle.

Workers’ assemblies, particularly if they have a strong component of the militant, organized workers, can move in two important directions. On the one hand, they can help launch a political offensive against the establishment on behalf of the general masses, for the $15 hourly minimum wage, or fighting racism and austerity, for example.

But workers’ assemblies can also go in the direction of the labor movement and become a significant transmission belt for a strong class struggle line, including fighting for the cause of low-wage workers.  A workers’ assembly could formulate a program for struggle, solidarity and for the revival of the labor movement in a militant direction — a program that would appeal to the rank-and-file and the advanced workers at all levels. Such a program could be promulgated at conferences, such as the upcoming September conference of the AFL-CIO, at union meetings and throughout the labor movement.