The meaning of low-wage worker struggle

And the need for an independent revolutionary pole in new working-class movement

Larry Holmes, center.WW photo: Brenda Ryan

Larry Holmes, center.
WW photo: Brenda Ryan

The nationwide strikes of workers at places like Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King are signs that the working-class movement is going through the birth pangs of what will be a new phase of development.

We are witnessing a truly revolutionary change in the social composition of the working class on a world scale that will, in effect, abet a revolutionary political and ideological transformation of the ranks and the leadership of a new working-class movement.

Some may dismiss this view as mere wishful thinking; however, it is scientific.

Finally, a long-awaited living process of profound social evolution is unfolding, compelled by the changing nature of capitalism (and the deepening of the capitalist crisis) and its global impact on the struggle between capital and labor.

The new, more thoroughly globalized, super-technologically advanced phase of capitalist production and its accompanied reorganization of the global workforce is pauperizing the entire working class, eliminating the better-paid sections of the working class, and laying the basis for the leadership of the working-class movement to be transferred to the growing ranks of low-paid, oppressed workers — Black, Brown, immigrant and especially women.

In a sense, it is misleading to make reference to the “low-wage” workers’ movement. There may be reasons to continue doing so for a period, but the “low-wage” term tends to reduce the largest segment, and certainly the fastest-growing segment of the working class, to a marginal category.

This erroneous notion of the low-wage worker somehow being a mere narrow slice of the working class, surprisingly still pervades some sections of the labor movement as well as some progressive forces.

No doubt the motion among low-wage workers is in an incipient stage. It has not reached the level of a tidal wave of proletarian rebellion. And the labor unions that are undertaking low-wage worker organizing are not putting nearly enough resources into this awesome task.  The organized labor movement is, at best, only partially committed to organizing the growing legions of low-wage workers as of yet.

This should come as no big surprise.  After all, the leadership of the organized labor movement has not yet taken up the need for labor to embrace with enthusiasm tens of millions more super-exploited and oppressed workers. The truth is, the changes in capitalism are forcing these unions to engage deeper and deeper layers of low-wage workers that heretofore were considered virtually impossible to organize, like the workers at McDonald’s and Walmart.

Indeed, it is only very recently that even the more militant elements in the labor movement, as well as wider progressive forces, are beginning to take the low-wage worker movement seriously, much less see in this development the revival of a more advanced working-class movement.

Given the demoralization, stagnation and paralysis that still holds the labor movement in its grip after such a long period of seemingly endless defeats, a sense of pessimism that anything might reverse the decline of the movement is still prevalent. Overcoming that pessimism is one of the big problems facing this new development in the working class.

Karl Marx on the trade unions

The pages of Workers World have repeatedly of late drawn attention to the thinking of Karl Marx on trade unions. Marx did not view the role of trade unions under capitalism as static but just the opposite. He viewed the unions as having the capacity to evolve from elementary organizations that represent a section of the working class in a limited way as against capital, to more inclusive and revolutionary formations that embrace all of the workers and the oppressed.

The traditional view of trade unions as organizations that are confined to perpetually trying to secure for a select group of workers a greater share of the wealth that they create for capitalism would only make sense if nothing changed and the capitalist system were not only permanent, but permanently stable and predictable.

In reality, the capitalist system — which is driven not by social needs, but by the irrational, insatiable and destructive quest for greater and greater profits — is inherently unstable and subject to a greater and inevitably insoluble crisis.

At some point, the goal of the workers’ movement must evolve from securing a good contract for some workers to overthrowing capitalism for all workers. The present crisis of capitalism obliges the working-class movement to advance or cease to exist.

Marx wrote on the trade unions in 1866: “Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the trade unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wage slavery itself. They therefore kept too much aloof from general social and political movements.”

In a chapter entitled “Trade Unions, Their Past, Present and Future,” Marx wrote: “Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction.

“Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the nonsociety [unorganized] men [and women] into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst-paid trades, such as the agricultural laborers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”

In Marx’s words, we discover why organized labor is, however haltingly, finally moving to organize the most oppressed. The reason why all of us are still trying to determine the importance of the new kinds of workers’ organizations that are developing is because until now, the traditions and the structure of the organized labor movement have been too narrow to provide space for these workers.

Breaking down artificial barriers

The growth in the number of such workers’ organizations that are not traditional unions — such as worker centers and organizing campaigns that have no near term prospect of winning recognition from employers, engaging in collective bargaining or getting contracts — is a sign of the rebirth of the workers’ movement.

Another sign is the use of nationwide strikes, that all though symbolic in scope, are achieving gains.  Low-wage worker strikes are reintroducing millions of workers to the potential of the powerful and underused weapon of the general strike.

The changes in global capitalism are transforming the role, and the potential for greater classwide solidarity in the class struggle.  At first glance, one might conclude that the most important change that capitalist globalization and technology have visited upon the working class has only weakened the working class’s ability to organize and defend itself against capital.

Many radicals hold this view. But there’s another way to view these changes. Just as the massive industrial worker organizing period of the 1930s was preceded by the horrors of the Great Depression, setbacks, suffering and trauma tend to precede and accompany any genuine rebirth of the working-class movement.

These enormous changes have and continue to devastate the social conditions for the whole working class. But these changes have also begun to break down all of the barriers and boundaries within the working class that have helped to foster the illusion that different groups of workers not only have different interests, but antagonistically different interests depending on the country they live in or their social status based on where they work.

The changes in capitalism, while pauperizing larger sections of the global working class, especially in the U.S and Europe, have tended to diminish these differences. Slowly but surely, this is effecting the consciousness of workers everywhere. The changes in capitalism and the deepening crises of capitalism are pushing the working class in an anti-capitalist, pro-socialist and ultimately, revolutionary direction.

In the U.S., the idea of the 99% needing to fight the 1% — introduced by the Occupy movement, while flawed in some respects — has signaled the beginning of a sea change in mass consciousness not seen in this country since the 1930s.  The problem with the 99% equation is that it obscures racism, national oppression, the super-oppression of women, immigrants, people with disabilities, the youth, and the oppression experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. It is up to those of us who know better to explain this.

On the other hand, the 99% vs. the 1% concept, however imperfect, is on an organic level, a call to classwide unity against capitalism in a country where capitalist ideology had long been declared the undisputed and eternal winner in the global struggle between capitalism and socialism. This sign of change in consciousness is part of the new role of classwide solidarity.

Ultimately, the expansion of greater classwide solidarity will

counterbalance and eradicate the challenges that the changes in global capitalism have created for the organization of the working class for the purposes of class struggle.

The new decisive role of classwide solidarity, or organizing a larger part of the whole working class into the class struggle, has yet to be fully realized or for that matter even understood. This must change.

Significance of classwide solidarity

What does this role of greater classwide solidarity mean in the struggle of low-wage workers? Obviously it means that the organized labor movement, not just the leadership, but the rank-and-file union workers must do a great deal more to assist low-wage workers in organizing.

The best way for organized labor to defend itself against union-busting and the shredding of contracts, health care benefits, pensions and all the rest of the seemingly endless war on the gains of the working class is to not view their defensive struggles as separate and apart from the struggle of fast-food workers, or retail workers, or domestic workers, or day laborers, or taxi drivers or low-wage workers everywhere who are fighting to organize, but rather to see the defensive struggles of unionized workers and the new struggle of low-wage workers as interdependent.

For low-wage workers, of course, the level of organization and militancy etc., in the workplace still remain decisive. But the role of mass solidarity from workers outside of the workplace with the struggle inside the workplace must grow exponentially.

Before, solidarity was considered essential, but not at the center of the workers’ struggle. Now, it will become more central to the struggle. This signifies a leap forward in class consciousness that transcends social and geographic differences in the working class.

For example, the AFL-CIO formed “Working America” about nine years ago as a way for workers who are not organized in the workplace to be part of the labor movement. The three million members of Working America are almost exclusively called upon only to vote or do electioneering for Democratic Party candidates. Imagine if just one out of 10 members of Working America were mobilized to assist low-wage worker organizing campaigns?

That would mean 300,000 more activists walking picket lines and participating in protests at McDonald’s and the many other workplaces across the country where low-wage workers are organizing.

As natural and relatively easy as it would be for organized labor to achieve this, because of the conservatism of the current labor leadership this is not going to happen anytime soon.

In the interim, progressive and revolutionary militants and activists must do what they can to organized classwide solidarity with low-wage workers.

How? It’s easy.

Take, for example, organizing solidarity with fast-food workers or big-box retail store workers. Restaurants and retail stores are everywhere.  They’re in the community, the suburbs, the commercial and shopping areas, the malls. Every time there’s some conscious act of solidarity with these workers, a march for their right to a $15 an hour minimum wage and a union, it makes a big difference.

If a few activists go inside a restaurant with a couple of signs that say “We Support McDonald’s” or “Wendy’s,” or “KFC workers,” it shakes up management, and the workers know that they are not isolated.

Activists can set up an informational table staffed by two or even one person outside of a restaurant and distribute literature on why everyone should support the demands of the workers inside.

Of course, the bigger and more militant the acts of organized solidarity with the workers are, the better.

Just think about the consequences of not organizing classwide solidarity with low-wage workers? We already know that workers everywhere, including the unemployed, support the fight for a livable wage and relate to that fight based on their own experiences.  If no effort is made to organize this support into solidarity actions, the workers organizing inside are deprived of this critical solidarity. And the workers outside are deprived of the opportunity to express their solidarity.

Forging a revolutionary pole

As easy and simple as these acts of solidarity are, there is much, much more at stake here. What is really at stake is the necessity to forge a new and strong revolutionary pole of activism within the working-class struggle.

Whether one calls them moderate, conservative, tied to the Democratic Party, or business trade unionism, the political forces that hold sway over the organized labor movement at the moment play at best a contradictory role in the working-class movement.

On the one hand, they work for the rights of the workers they represent, but on the other hand, their political orientation betrays and disempowers those very same workers.

Most importantly, even if it hurts the workers they are sworn to represent, these moderating forces are committed to making sure that the trade unions and the working class remain tied to the two capitalist parties, particularly the Democratic Party.

These forces view as an essential part of their jobs, restraining radicalism, militancy and anti-capitalist consciousness within the working class — something that’s going to be increasingly hard for them to accomplish.

Most of the new organizations that have sprung up in the recent period to represent the interests of workers that, until now were considered outside the labor movement — including the workers’ centers and various low-wage worker organizing campaigns — cannot be truly independent of the ideological constraints of the current labor leadership because these organizations are dependent on the same leaders for funding.

The problem is not that organized labor is funding new worker organizing. In fact, much, much more of the hard-won union dues of union workers needs to be devoted to low-wage worker organizing. The problem is that the resources come with the restricting political conditions of the moderating forces.

These political limitations can only be diminished by the growth of revolutionary, class consciousness and anti-capitalist ideology in the working class, made decisively more powerful by a conscious independent, revolutionary pole in the working-class movement.

Such a pole once existed, until the revolutionary communist and socialist militants were forced out of the organized labor movement during the witch hunt or forced to either conform to the accepted norms or conceal their politics.

As confidence and militancy grow amongst the low-wage workers and become contagious, the material basis for an independent revolutionary pole will strengthen. The decisive question will be: Do the revolutionaries have the will and the wherewithal to counter the moderating forces by helping to forge this pole?

Larry Holmes is Workers World Party’s first secretary.