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What can stop layoffs?

Organize to fight back now

Published Feb 11, 2009 3:50 PM

On becoming president, Barack Obama proclaimed his job creation goal to be 3 million jobs over the next two years. Yet in the last two months alone nearly 1.2 million jobs have been lost: 577,000 in December and 598,000 in January. The December figure was revised upward by the government, which had originally estimated it at 533,000. Economists expect the monthly number to be even worse in February.

With each new layoff announcement, the target number for jobs to be created goes up. The latest target is 4 million, even though right-wing Republicans are whittling down the stimulus package.

The official unemployment number has jumped from 7.2 percent to 7.6 percent. But this is not the total unemployment number, which includes those who have stopped looking for work and those working part time because they cannot find full-time work. That has jumped from 13.5 percent to 13.9 percent.

In effect, this means that to achieve full employment for the approximately 154 million people in the workforce, some 21.4 million new full-time jobs would be needed now—and this number is growing rapidly each month.

Every worker should do the math. The so-called stimulus package, even assuming that it could meet its goals, appears more and more anemic compared to the momentum of the crisis, which is growing each week, each month. Creating relatively few jobs at a snail’s pace leaves tens of millions of workers unemployed and underemployed. Tens of millions more are vulnerable to becoming part of the unemployment statistics.

Every new grim announcement by the government on unemployment, foreclosures, evictions, homelessness, the loss of health care, hunger, record numbers applying to hard-pressed food banks, an increase in child poverty, etc., should become a big wake-up call for the multinational working class to get organized for a fightback.

Actions being planned

One important attempt to begin the crucial fightback is taking place in New York City where the Bail Out the People Movement is forging a grassroots alliance for struggle and calling a national action against the bankers on Wall Street on April 3 and 4. While the mobilization is targeting the bankers, it has a broad program with a focus on stopping the layoffs. Hundreds of endorsers and contingents are coming aboard from every region of the country.

Along the same line, a network of local coalitions in cities around the country, from New York to Boston to Los Angeles, is organizing to make May Day 2009 a day of struggle and unity to fight back against attacks on immigrant workers and to strengthen the struggle against the economic crisis. Many of these coalitions played key roles in the great May Day 2006 strike/boycott of millions of immigrant workers.

At this moment a delegation representing 250 workers, most of them immigrants, who sat in at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago is touring the country. These workers occupied the plant for five days until they won their severance pay and back pay. They are telling their inspiring story to standing-room-only gatherings of trade unionists and activists. The workers are from the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers, Local 1110. The tour is sponsored by Jobs with Justice.

The boldness of Local 1110 inspired the solidarity of the labor movement and the political movement. These workers set a living example of reviving a tactic–the sit-down strike—that was used in the 1930s on a massive scale to win the greatest victories in U.S. labor history.

Local 1110 carried out its sit-down strike in Chicago in the midst of a growing economic crisis. But these workers are not unique. All over the country there are rank-and-file workers, lower-level union officials, shop stewards and trade union activists at all levels, as well as sympathizers with the labor movement, looking for a way to fight back.

Vast network of potential power

There are now 16 million workers in the organized labor movement. There are tens of thousands of local unions around the country, thousands of them under attack by the waves of layoffs. There are hundreds of municipal and regional labor councils whose members are under siege or living in fear of layoffs, shortened hours and demands for concessions.

This vast network of potential working class power is lying dormant as the top labor leaders try to avoid mobilizing the workers to push back. The labor leadership is understandably focused for the moment on pushing through a legislative victory for the Employee Free Choice Act, which legalizes the card check system for union organizing. But this measure, important as it is in the day-to-day campaign to organize unions, will not meet the urgent needs of the millions falling under the ax of layoffs or losing their health care and their homes on a daily basis.

Most importantly, these measures fail to blunt future layoffs. The layoffs arise from the urgent needs of the capitalists to preserve their profits and cut their losses.

The rank and file must get organized within their locals, within their unions and within the union movement as a whole and unite with the communities and activists all over the country to develop a genuine fighting force. Neither John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO nor Andrew Stern of SEIU/Change to Win has represented the labor movement or the working class as a whole in this crisis.

French workers set example

These leaders should contemplate what just took place in France, where 2.5 million people, led by the unions, struck and/or marched to demand priority be given to protecting and creating jobs. The French workers shut down major cities, from Paris to Marseilles, as all the unions united for a show of strength. Of course, the French working class movement has a great tradition of class struggle.

But the workers in the U.S. have a history of struggle as well. During the 1930s they carried out marches and rallies of the unemployed. The Workers Alliance and the Unemployed Councils put hundreds of thousands of people who had been evicted back in their homes. They carried out citywide general strikes. The workers initiated hundreds of sit-down strikes. This is a history and tradition that can and must be revived.

The bosses, bankers and their “experts” are fully aware of this history, more so than are most workers at the moment. That is one of the reasons they were so anxious to settle the Republic Windows and Doors sit-down: the fear that it would become contagious in the midst of a layoff crisis.

Each time they announce a new figure for layoffs that is “the highest” since 1983, or 1972, or declare the crisis to be the “worst since the Great Depression,” they keep their fingers crossed that the working class in general, including the oppressed—the African American, Latina/o, Asian and Native communities—will get frightened, demoralized and retreat into trying to deal with the crisis on an individual basis.

But everyone knows in their bones that this crisis cannot be fought on an individual basis. Organization is the most important weapon that the working class and the oppressed have.

The capitalist system is in the midst of a major, global crisis of overproduction. There is a glut of commodities that cannot be sold because the entire capitalist class all over the world, in the race for profits, has lowered wages and increased production. That is what is called capitalist anarchy of production.

In the auto industry the global capacity could produce 90 million autos a year. Present production is 66 million a year. Semiconductors are used in everything from iPods to airplanes, yet the semiconductor industry is operating at 66 percent of capacity. Even the oil industry is operating far below capacity.

Why? Because the masses do not have the money to purchase the vast inventories of commodities that have been built up by their own labor as the bosses race for profits and market share. So production shuts down. Plants and offices are destroyed or sit idle.

The only thing that can change the course of the crisis is the conscious, organized intervention of the workers and the communities to defend themselves–to demand the right to a job, to housing, to health care, to education and to social services of all kinds.

The process of getting organized for struggle is a difficult one. But there is no other course. The only social force that can bail out the workers, the only force that is going to stop the layoffs, the foreclosures and evictions, the racist attacks, the sexist inequality of wages and abuse of women, the raids on undocumented workers—that is going to stop all forms of oppression—is the might of the organized, multinational working class.