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Prospects for a class-wide movement

Published Nov 20, 2008 9:33 PM

Martha Grevatt
WW photo: Gary Wilson

This year is the tenth anniversary of the death of our founder and chairperson, Sam Marcy. You’re hearing references to his many writings, including his seminal work, “High Tech, Low Pay.” Now, over 20 years since its publication, it’s fair to make an objective assessment of Comrade Sam’s projections. Have the class contradictions in the world developed in accordance with his outline at that time? Is class consciousness advancing as he predicted? Or did he miss the mark? He wrote about the shift in the U.S. to a low-wage service economy, with many more workers of color, women and immigrants, adding that “The change of consciousness which has so long been delayed ... is bound to come as the result of deep-seated, profound changes in the social composition of the working class.”

Sam’s vision was that, over time, there would be a breaking down of those terrible backward hatreds, of the awful racism that too long has kept our class divided and powerless.

Was Sam just another dreamy utopian out of touch with reality? I remember quite well a dialogue that took place, right after the book was published, at a Workers World conference deliberating these very pertinent questions. A member of another political organization was arguing the opposite, that the increased numbers of Black, [email protected], Asian, Native, and Arab workers would only provoke a racist backlash from white workers.

Did this “revolutionary” pessimist have his finger on the pulse of the masses? In a constantly changing world—and Marxism is the science of change—it’s hard to make definitive conclusions, but the Obama victory can sure give us some insight. After all, this first African-American U.S. president didn’t just sweep the east and west coasts. He completely swept the entire Great Lakes industrial region, once called the Steel Belt, now known as the Rust Belt.

Even more remarkably, the Obama campaign bit off a piece of the Confederacy, along with part of the old West. I’m an autoworker from Ohio, home of Joe the Plumber. (If you’re old enough to remember Watergate, you’ll notice the Republicans have a thing for plumbers.) So I’d like to focus on that stunning victory in those Rust Belt states, where the Black population ranges from 15 percent in Illinois to 11 percent in Ohio, 9 percent in Indiana and a mere 2.5 percent in Iowa.

McCain and Palin made numerous visits to Ohio. They made a superstar of a plumber who dreamed he was going to get so many customers he’d be making $250,000 a year, although he wasn’t even a licensed plumber, and wasn’t it awful that he would be put in a higher tax bracket than someone making minimum wage. Appealing to the petit-bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeois wannabe is a classic technique for building a right-wing base, but while this dangerous element should not be underestimated, neither should we underestimate the fact that they lost, and the shift in consciousness that that represents.

Looking at the map of my state, broken down by how each county voted, it’s clear that Obama’s support came from the whole industrial part; from Toledo to Youngstown and down into Akron and Canton. This is where the union members live, and the latest polls show six in 10, and in some states seven in 10, union voters backed Obama. The real Joe the Plumber, Joe the Union Plumber, said no to racism. And in even higher numbers, Josephine the Union Plumber voted no on racism.

Sam was right. Class consciousness is moving forward. And it’s a reflection of material conditions.

All the polls said the number one issue on workers’ minds was the economy. Just look at the auto industry, where I’ve worked for the past 21 years. Union jobs and union wages have come under attack like never before. There are now only 200,000 workers in the whole country who work for the Big Three, and last year the United Auto Workers reluctantly agreed to major wage and benefit cuts.

Every day the papers have more bad news on the front page. Eight days ago GM announced that 3,600 hourly jobs would be cut, and three days later another 1,900 layoffs were announced. The day after that GM reported it had reached its target of cutting 3,500 salaried positions, so now it was going to cut another 3,500. The pattern is being replicated at Ford and Chrysler. The loss of jobs in Michigan and Ohio, the two states with the highest unemployment rates, has made them leaders in the home foreclosure crisis that triggered this general crisis of finance capital.

Now the Big Three bosses are begging for government aid; they’ve asked for $25 billion of the $700 billion earmarked for the banks. But the banks told them, “Oh no, you can’t have any of that, that’s our money.” And GM is saying it will run out of money and won’t even be able to make payroll after the first of the year. They say they don’t have the money to put into the fund that was set up to relieve them of future obligations for retirees’ health insurance, and they’re protesting legislation that would force them to keep the pension funds at a certain level, because if they do that they won’t have any money and will have to lay off more workers!

Some 780,000 UAW retirees, and huge numbers of non-union retirees, have a lot to fear. While all this crying was going on, GM opened a brand-new plant in Russia.

The UAW has jumped on the bandwagon of getting federal money to the auto companies. Given the alternatives it’s understandable, but does the union really think that the companies will use that money to save jobs? Won’t they just squander the fortunes we’ve created by continuing the restructuring that has devastated the economy already?

It’s past time for the UAW to call for workers’ control. If there is to be a bailout, let it be for us, the workers. Who dare say we’re unqualified? In the 1920s Italian workers at Fiat and Alfa Romeo took over the plants, and they made cars without bosses. Even as we speak, workers in Venezuela are taking over plants and running them.

Only by building class solidarity can the working class hope to save itself from further destruction. White workers must do more than vote for a Black president in the privacy of the voting booth. They must be prepared, on the job and in the communities, to defend workers of color from the racist backlash that has already begun, and to unite as a class against the daily attacks on their living standards and livelihoods.

And it’s literally every day that some new affront to our class takes place. The latest was that Chrysler executives would receive their so-called retention bonuses as scheduled, anywhere from $200,000 to $1.7 million. The excuse is—can you believe it—it’s in their contract! They cut jobs right and left, violating even the concessionary 2007 contract with the UAW, but the bosses must get theirs, because it’s in their contract!

These crooks are unfit to run the plants. There should not only be no retention bonuses, there should be no retention at all! As Sam also pointed out, the development of the productive forces has made the private owners of the means of production “wholly unnecessary.”

The old union song said it right, dump the bosses off your backs!