Workers Assemblies, Oct. 24 and the fight to raise workers’ wages

The following is taken from a talk by Sharon Black given at the Sept. 27 Workers World Party public forum in New York City. Black is a member of the Baltimore Workers Assembly and attended the 2013 AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.

I want to read a passage from “The History of the Russian Revolution” by Leon Trotsky that has meaning for our discussion today. It explains part of the revolutionary process that illuminates not only revolutionary situations in particular but contradictory phenomena in general — of which the union movement and the U.S. working-class movement are an example.

“The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility of and mobility of the human mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of demagogues.”

The AFL-CIO and the union movement in this country — which is not homogeneous at all — are filled with contradictions. Take the so-called “immigrant rights” bill, S-744, which many in grassroots immigrant rights groups are bitterly opposed to, and rightfully so. The union movement has decided to embrace the bill with the philosophy that anything is better than nothing.

Or look at the issue of Obamacare, which will deeply hurt a number of union-contracted health care plans. The top union officials have basically capitulated to the Democratic Party and dropped fighting for a single-payer plan, or health care for all.

But perhaps the biggest elephant in the room at the time of the convention was the refusal of the leadership to take on the issue of opposition to the war on Syria, which in essence let right-wing demagogues seem to lead the opposition to it.

But it would be erroneous to view the union movement solely based on its problems and mistakes. There were other developments at the convention that deserve embracing and deepening. The decision by the AFL-CIO to attempt to broaden itself and bring into its top leadership groups that prior to this did not have a seat at the table — workers’ groups like the Taxi Drivers Association and others like the NAACP, NOW and the Sierra Club — was important, especially the seat representing young workers.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s words were something like “In the past labor set the agenda and then we went to our allies and partners and told them what we needed. Now we want to sit down together and set the agenda together.”

The AFL-CIO’s attempt to reconfigure itself is based on major difficulties and the cold, hard reality that union membership and consequently its influence are shrinking.

But the problem goes deeper than that. Whether the AFL-CIO states it openly or not, it’s the changes in the capitalist system itself. A larger and more impoverished global working class has been forced to compete with each other. It is largely atomized and low wage. This has created an almost insurmountable challenge to the unions in terms of even defending old gains, given that the union movement is fighting under the same old capitalist constructs.

I’ll give a very concrete example. Look at the situation in Detroit, where bankruptcy proceedings have threatened the pensions of city workers.

It’s of course possible to arouse the workers who are losing their pensions. But that is limited. If you look at this from a distance, what’s needed is to arouse the entire working class. But a large percentage of the workers now — especially those who are young and most oppressed — provided that they are working at all, earn less on a monthly basis than what some pensioners get. That’s not to say that pensioners have adequate incomes. It’s to show how difficult it is for union workers to win over non-union workers.

What came out of the Baltimore Workers Assembly

It’s in this context that I want to explore the importance of the Workers Assemblies and raise the critical questions: Can they be helpful in deepening this needed development in the union movement to broaden the movement’s scope? Can Workers Assemblies provide the vehicle for the working class to find a political expression that has the potential to take on capitalism?

Let me switch gears and discuss what came out of the Baltimore Workers Assembly on Sept. 1, and also what Oct. 24 is about.

The assembly came to a consensus and voted for three things: 1) to wage a campaign for a $15-an-hour minimum wage; 2) to make Oct. 24, the 75th anniversary of when the first minimum wage was enacted, National Raise Workers’ Wages Day; and 3) to build the Workers Assembly movement both locally and nationally.

The struggle to raise workers’ wages in this country is critical. According to the Huffington Post, the median annual income is $26,364, which means that at least half the workers in this country make less than the $15 an hour we are demanding. The difference in wages for the most oppressed is incredible, with a gap of between $10,000 and $15,000 less a year for Black and Latina/o workers, which illustrates the tremendous need to fight racism.

Why did we choose $15? We could have said $21.74. One study shows that the minimum wage would have to be raised to $21.74 to keep up with increased worker productivity. Or if we had just followed a current AFL-CIO petition, we would have called for $10 and some change. On the other hand, if we based it on ending exploitation and paying workers the full value of what they produce, it would be much higher.

But the main reason we chose $15 was to show support and solidarity for the very heroic fast food workers’ struggle, which has raised $15 prominently. In addition we based it on our direct discussions with workers in the streets prior to the Baltimore Workers Assembly.

There is a lot of discussion on the strategy of the Service Employees union and of OUR Walmart started by the United Food and Commercial Workers — their good points, the in-between and the bad. That’s not the job of this report.

What is their real problem? The real problem is the need to engage the whole working class. That is their best chance of winning. Low wages are a classwide problem — actually a worldwide problem. Look at the great struggle going on in Bangladesh by workers fighting to raise wages.

This makes Oct. 24 a very important effort and the Workers Assemblies an important vehicle.

Ultimately, the main problem for the working class is capitalism and imperialism. We cannot give up on or ignore this — ultimately the political struggle for power is crucial. What is taking place internationally, including the threat of imperialist war, is critical to our day-to-day struggles. A war such as the one on Syria and the entire region has the potential of subverting the class struggle — but it also has the potential for undoing the imperialists’ aims through international working-class solidarity.

Next: The potential of the Workers Assemblies for the unions and the broader movement.