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Cleveland workers discuss ‘Low-Wage Capitalism’

Published Apr 9, 2009 7:03 PM

From March 25 to 27, community, labor and student activists in Cleveland joined Fred Goldstein, author of “Low-Wage Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay,” in discussions on the current economic crisis and prospects for working-class resistance.

At a public forum, Prisscilla Cooper, president and CEO of Family Connection Center, an advocacy group for women trying to access public benefits, outlined the dire situation for mothers and children trapped in the welfare system. When President Clinton instituted “welfare reform,” the federal government set a lifetime limit of five years for families to collect public assistance, but in Ohio the limit was reduced to three years.

During those three years a recipient must work 30 hours a week for less than minimum wage. “There are no jobs for them to access” after the three years, Cooper explained. With no income at all families are squatting in abandoned, unheated buildings. Child support payments go directly to the state to reduce the cost to the government of providing benefits. Penniless, mothers are placing their children in foster care. “There is a war on mothers and children,” Cooper charged.

Goldstein put the crisis of the working class, from the attack on the autoworkers’ union to the superexploitation of low-wage workers around the world, in the context of capitalist overproduction. The author offered an answer to the question, what do we do?

“We are at the end of a long period in which there have been no big struggles against the bosses. It’s been 70 years. There have been many valiant struggles, from the Phelps Dodge to the Caterpillar workers and the transit workers to the janitors and the hotel workers, but they have been isolated struggles, guerrilla wars.

“What’s needed to answer a crisis of this magnitude is a huge, class-wide, mass struggle characterized by what I would call the three S’s: It has to be a social struggle, there has to be solidarity in the struggle, and there has to be struggle in the struggle. And it has to be directed against capitalism,” said Goldstein.

What unions could do

“The capitalist class is very glad to point out, over and over, the decline of the trade unions, how they only have 13 per cent of the workforce. It went up a little bit, up to 15 or 16 million recently. But these are working-class organizations, and they have tens of thousands of locals around the country, and they have hundreds of central labor councils, and they have billions of dollars in resources.”

“The problem,” continued Goldstein, “is that the leadership is asleep at the wheel, or aiding and abetting those who want to keep the workers from fighting. There was one little flash that electrified everybody, the Republic Doors and Windows workers, who took over the plant. They scared the hell out of the bourgeoisie.

“Just down the road is Michigan, and the UAW and the autoworkers who are being hammered, they’re the ones who sat down in the thousands to create the modern industrial unions in 1936 and 1937, when they took over the Flint Fisher Body plants. That’s the kind of struggle that we’re going to have to forge, only this time it can’t just be the unions unto themselves.”

Goldstein talked about what is necessary in this struggle: “The [unions] have to think about the communities, about racism, about the undocumented workers who are being persecuted by Homeland Security. They have to think about women, about the lesbian and gay community. These are the allies of any progressive force who will take the initiative against capitalism.

“They can draw huge reservoirs of support if they take up the demands of the community, if they demand food, if they demand an end to this horrible welfare system—it’s an atrocity. They have to care about two and a quarter million prisoners who are behind bars, the majority of whom are Black and Latina/o. They have to know that these prisons are sweatshops, slave shops, that 40 states have industrial departments where they hire out prisoner workers to corporations for pennies a day.

“In 1866 Marx told the union movement that it had to be for the emancipation of the entire working class, organized and unorganized, and it’s as true today as it was then,” said Goldstein. “We have to look for ways of multiplying the struggles, of bringing everyone together, the workers and the communities, to form an ironclad alliance to fight for food, housing, jobs, health care and everything that the masses of people need.”