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Labor struggles since 1980 and strategies for the coming period

Published Sep 1, 2008 12:01 AM

Following is Part 2 of a paper by Fred Goldstein, a member of Workers World Party’s Secretariat, submitted as a contribution to the discussion of the 17th International Communist Seminar held in Brussels, Belgium, on May 16-18. It is a summary of the third and concluding section of a book entitled “Low-Wage Capitalism, Colossus with Feet of Clay,” soon to be published.

Part 1 of the paper, which appeared in the last issue of Workers World, concluded with a survey of the forces in the U.S. that could serve as a basis for a resurgence of the class struggle, including 15 million workers in organized labor and another 50 million workers who want to join unions.

This potential force includes the masses of unorganized workers, the under-employed, and the unemployed struggling to survive. It includes the communities of workers and their families being devastated by home foreclosures and evictions; the groups that have been fighting for immigrant rights; the “living wage” movement; the struggles for universal health care; activists fighting homelessness and demanding affordable housing; neighborhood groups fighting to improve the schools.

It also includes the anti-war movement; groups fighting to save the environment from devastation by corporate polluters; and opponents of police brutality, the death penalty and the prison-industrial complex.

Above all, class unity can only be attained by supporting the thousands of groups around the country—local, regional and national—that have been fighting against racism and national oppression, sexism and gender oppression.

Plant occupations and the right to a job

New strategies and tactics are needed for the crisis. The question is how to put a stop to the present bloodletting of layoffs by the bosses. The issue before the working class and the unions especially is: do workers have a right to their jobs? As the creators of the wealth of the bosses, do they not have equity, do they not have property rights to the wealth that they have created? By what right can they be deprived of that property?

The labor of the workers has created the wealth that has been invested and reinvested over and over again to create the plants, the offices, the mines, the hospitals, etc. Having created all this property, workers should have a property right to their jobs. In simpler terms, workers have “sweat equity” in their jobs and in the workplace as well.

Workers have every right to prevent the bosses from depriving them of their jobs. This is simply workers defending their property rights. The right to occupy a workplace to prevent closings and layoffs must be established as a fundamental right of the working class. Possession of the plants should be viewed as nothing more than asserting the property rights of the creators of the wealth that built those plants. The capital of the owners is nothing more than accumulated labor of the workers, for which the workers have not been paid. Seen in this light, the seizure of the workplace by the workers in defense of their jobs is nothing more than their laying claim to property that they have created.

Challenging the capital-labor framework

In order to fight management, it is necessary to reject the ideological framework of management. Even within the framework of the capitalist system, the workers in their present situation cannot move forward in any significant way unless they challenge the labor-capital framework. The workers will have to challenge some of the basic prerogatives of capital and the ideology of the supremacy of the capitalist market and the rights of capitalist property. Indeed, when the UAW workers seized the plants in Flint, Mich., when the hundreds of thousands of workers carried out successful sit-downs in 1936 and 1937, they challenged the property rights of the bosses. It was the only way they could win.

Over the past three decades, the bosses have been using the argument of the need to “remain competitive” as their wedge against the workers in the struggle for concessions. However, in the unfolding economic crisis, their argument for “competitiveness” may be superseded by their assertion that shutdowns and layoffs are necessary because the company must maintain profitability and prevent losses.

The question of profitability must be subordinated to the right of the workers to jobs and income. The workers have the right to take over their workplaces and operate them with government or corporate subsidies, if necessary. Workers have the right to demand jobs programs to deal with their crisis as a class.

The capitalist government gives hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to the military-industrial complex, to corporate firms for research and development, to build infrastructure for corporations, and so on. Workers have a right to demand that this largesse, this charity to the corporations, be redirected to meet the needs of the workers in a crisis.

When the capitalist system utterly fails to meet the most elementary needs of survival for millions of workers, then the workers have the right to deal with the crisis by defying capitalist methods and beginning to establish their own legal rights and their own power on the ground. This will require struggle but it will also demand that the workers get beyond the basic assumptions of capitalism so that their struggle can be effective.

To continue with the question of class-conscious ideology, consider the universal argument of the capitalist class against the workers about the need “to remain competitive.” Why do the bosses constantly bring this up in labor negotiations (assuming the workers have a union)? It is a clear statement that the one who wins the capitalist competition is the one with the lowest labor costs. Thus, in order for the capitalist in company A to beat out the capitalist in company B, the workers in company A have to out-compete the workers in company B by allowing their wages to be cut below the others.

Accepting the bosses’ notion that labor must subordinate its demands to the overriding necessity of capital to remain competitive and profitable is a self-defeating ideology. The workers cannot be guided by it. Such arguments completely tie the fate of the workers to the perils of the capitalist market.

To unravel this problem ideologically, it is first necessary to restate the fundamental Marxist truth that the substance of profit is surplus value. And surplus value consists of unpaid labor. Profits are directly proportional to the unpaid labor of the workers. Higher profits mean that more surplus value is extracted from the hides of the workers. If the workers are paid more for their labor, the profits of the bosses are lowered proportionally. This absolutely reciprocal relationship is what lies behind the irreconcilable antagonism between workers and bosses.

To hold the workers responsible for the profitability of capital is to demand that they agree to intensify their own exploitation to solve the crisis of their exploiters. If this is explained to the workers, they can easily comprehend it.

There are times when concessions may have to be given, because the situation is very unfavorable for the workers. But the idea that concessions must be made so the boss can be “more competitive” chains the fate of the workers to the capitalist market.

The question should be posed: Why must the exploited sacrifice their wages, their benefits, their working conditions and their very jobs in order to maintain the continuous prosperity of the exploiters, who have lived off the wealth created by the workers in the first place?

Class-consciousness and the fightback

The strategy of class-wide fightback, concepts such as a right to a job and the right to occupy workplaces, the need for international class solidarity with oppressed workers around the world and the need for the workers to see themselves as a world class united by their common exploitation—such concepts cannot be spontaneously arrived at. The intervention of a class-conscious revolutionary vanguard that understands and can promote the ultimate goal of getting rid of exploitation altogether, abolishing capitalism, is indispensable to the struggle.

It was Lenin, the architect of the first successful socialist revolution in history, who fought for this conception at the beginning of the 20th century. He argued for the creation of a revolutionary party, which became known as the Bolshevik Party.

Lenin argued strenuously for bringing socialist, political class-consciousness to the workers as a highly important task, along with carrying on economic agitation, strikes and demonstrations. He put forward all this in the groundbreaking pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?” written in 1902.

Socialism the only way out

Nothing can change the facts about the overriding contradiction governing all of modern society. This contradiction is between, on the one hand, the private ownership of the world’s vast means of production by a tiny minority of fabulously wealthy corporate financiers who operate the entire system for profit and, on the other, the highly developed, interdependent, socialized, global production process set in motion 24 hours a day by the labor of the world’s working class under increasingly onerous conditions.

Nothing can change the fact that capitalism has entered a new stage in which more and more layers of the working class are pushed into conditions of poverty and near poverty and face job loss, eviction, foreclosure, hunger, health crises—all clearly arising out of the capitalist profit system.

It is scientifically correct to assert that socialism is the antithesis of capitalism, and is its only form of negation. There is no other historically possible resolution of capitalism’s fundamental contradictions. Socialized production must be brought into correspondence with socialized ownership, thus enabling the socially planned use of the world’s productive and natural resources.

Imperialism in the age of the scientific revolution is expanding and deepening exploitation and oppression on an unprecedented scale. What is referred to as “globalization” is in fact the expanded export of capital and the use of cutthroat trade by giant transnational corporations to pile up huge profits at the expense of the people of the world. In short, it is a phase of intensification and widening of the imperialist plunder of the globe.

This process of expanded global exploitation, which is proceeding at breakneck speed due to modern high technology, has profound consequences at home and abroad and is rapidly developing the groundwork for the next phase of the world historic struggle for socialism.

“Low-Wage Capitalism” will be published this fall. For information and to donate to the cost of publication, contact the publisher: World View Forum, 55 W. 17th St., 5th floor, New York, NY 10011.