The analysis below is based on a talk to the Aug. 8 New York branch meeting of Workers World Party by Milt Neidenberg, one of the party’s founding members.
The main theme of this talk is to give a historical context, utilizing the party’s Marxist analysis, to the AFL-CIO convention scheduled for early September and to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s stated orientation toward low-paid workers, most of them unorganized. These workers, concentrated especially in service industries, are of different nationalities and many are women.
The great recession/depression that began in 2008 has brought havoc upon the multinational workers, the oppressed and the unions. It was a merciless attack on their living conditions, jobs and benefits. It destroyed so-called middle-class jobs and drove unemployment, poverty, homelessness and lack of health care to unprecedented depths.
This recession/depression, according to many bourgeois economists, was worse than the 1929 crash that lasted a decade, until World War II.
How do we describe the nature of this global capitalist crisis? Engels laid out one important characteristic in his “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”:
“The mass of the workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence.”
The financial collapse was the result of the scientific-technological revolution and caused an unprecedented shift of wealth to Wall Street and the speculators. This resulted in overproduction, a massive influx of bogus money and debt, and led to unprecedented layoffs on a global scale.
However, for the global multinational workforce, it further socialized the means of production. Open the hood of a General Motors car. The parts have passed through the hands of labor around the globe.
Another phenomenal development took place even earlier. Sam Marcy, the founder of Workers World Party, wrote a memorandum as early as 1984 about “the changing character of the working class.” In the foreword to his book “High Tech, Low Pay,” published two years later, Marcy wrote that “the scientific-technological revolution had become such an enormous economic factor that it had changed the social composition of the U.S. working class.”
He explained that there had been “a general shift of the workers away from relatively high-skilled, high-paid jobs into lower-skilled, lower-paid service jobs.” These lower-paid workers were mostly Black and Latino/a people and women.
This lower-paid workforce was born out of the productive forces of the scientific-technological revolution, and should be viewed as a historic development, not as some episodic phenomenon.
Earlier technological change had led to the movement that fought for the 8-hour day, led by communists. It was followed by the formation of the industrial workforce that carried out historic sit-ins at giant corporations during the 1930s and raised the slogan: “A job is a property right.” It was indispensable in speeding up the formation of trade unions and organized labor.
This is some of the background that led Trumka to recognize the importance of the low-paid sector of multinational workers, which includes immigrants, lesbian-gay-bi-trans-queer communities, and women. Out of desperation and defeats, he has encouraged the Federation’s affiliates to reach out to this exploited, unorganized sector and bring them into an alliance with the hierarchy/structure of the AFL-CIO.
Let’s recall that, beginning in 1886 with Samuel Gompers, there have been only eight presidents of the AFL and CIO in all that time. Business unionism still prevails. But now treasuries are drying up due to the loss of dues-paying members, and the Trumka perspective costs money.
The Change to Win Federation, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005 under the urging of Andy Stern of the Service Employees union, has a similar perspective on organizing service-oriented, highly exploited workers, and is in a similar crisis. Hopefully this bureaucratic split can be resolved. Building unity is a necessity.
During the cycles of capitalist boom and bust, both these labor bureaucracies have collaborated with the companies, enjoying the crumbs of the capitalist boom and cooperating with concessions and givebacks during the bust. Unfortunately, during these decades they have focused on collaborating with the Democratic Party and have become a shell of what they were in the past.
How this new orientation to the unorganized service sector will play out at the AFL-CIO convention and whether the SEIU and Change to Win compete for these exploited workers remains to be seen.
Tasks for Workers World Party
These conventions are dominated by delegates appointed by their internationals. The results show how the Democratic Party influences their electoral policy, strategy and resolutions. How Trumka’s orientation will play out is therefore a question.
Workers World Party needs to be present to provide an independent, classwide perspective. The party’s tasks involve reaching out, building and strengthening the service sector of exploited workers — who may be in fast food, hospitality, medical or retail industries, or they may be livery drivers, car washers, grave diggers or laundry workers. Some comrades have begun to find their way into this relatively young and exploited workforce. This service-oriented workforce holds the destiny for building a classwide movement.
Can we bring representatives of this class formation to the convention? It’s a huge task.
To sum up, I’d like to quote “High Tech Low Pay.” Marcy concludes, “The change in the social composition of the working class raises the objective basis for a movement of the working class itself, of which [various social] movements will become so many constituent parts.
“When we speak of the women’s movement or the anti-war movement or the Black movement as part of the working-class movement, it doesn’t mean they won’t have an independent character. Of course they will. But they will be part of the working-class movement because it will have come alive as the fundamental class in society which alone can weld these movements together in a genuine anti-capitalist and progressive struggle, a struggle both for democratic rights and for socialism. … [I]t is bound to come as the result of deep-seated, profound changes in the social composition of the working class.”
The deepening of the global capitalist crisis has brought about austerity and sequestration and imposed an unprecedented burden on Black, Latino/a, immigrant, LGBTQ, women and other oppressed workers. It is class warfare by Wall Street and the capitalist government to deny those movements their basic democratic rights. It also positions them to be agents for social change. The murder of Trayvon Martin may yet be a spark.
All social change comes from below. New strategies and tactics will surface. Occupations, seizures of public and private property, encampments — even strikes and general strikes in a difficult period — should be considered, along with building people’s assemblies and workers’ assemblies. The party is in the preparatory stage to make this happen. Building our national labor fraction is a step in this direction.
Turning the party’s face to the multinational working class and the oppressed nationalities is an important transitional step in the struggle toward a socialist society.