Class struggle is back baby!
As millions throughout the United States celebrate the Fourth of July, or the independence of the United States, it is a good opportunity to celebrate the return of a beautiful tradition that has been mostly missing in the country for the past three decades: class struggle. The U.S. working class, long abandoned by the neoliberal corporate Democrat party and stigmatized, impoverished, and oppressed by the classist far right-wing nationalistic Republican party, has finally lifted one big long middle figure to the elites and upper class saying “Ya basta” (enough already).
From the tens of thousands of ‘Red for Ed’ teacher’s going on strike, to the first fast food restaurant union in the history of the United States, to Black Lives Matter, to the massive growth of the leftist group Democratic Socialists of America, to the union organizing, clearly class struggle is back and not going anywhere, anytime soon.
"I think what is important for the movement right now is to be building independent political power that is accountable to the people rather than corporate interests and to start strategizing and experimenting with ways to actually democratize society so that when we do take power the left doesn’t merely govern over capitalism but is able to fundamentally transcend it." -Charles Allen, DSA organizer-
It might not be well known, but the United States used to be a bastion for leftist thought and for having a radical labor movement. Believe it or not, the 40 hour work week, the weekend, May day and other labor milestones have their origins in the U.S. labor movement. Long before war-criminal and arguably the country’s worst president Ronald Reagan and subsequent neoliberal Democrat and Republican administrations gutted the U.S. labor movement, the labor movement and its leftist political allies were able to bring millions to the streets, have significant electoral power, and enact progressive legislation. What happened?
Let’s explore a little history. Mayday, or international workers day, is recognized in almost every country in the world except the country where it started, the United States. In May 1, 1886, 250,000 workers went on strike in Chicago to demand an 8-hour workday, a demand that was making its ways through the radical labor movement in the United States that from the Chicago stockyards, to the mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, to railroad workers, were in open revolt against their corporate masters.
Anarchist labor leaders such as August Spies and Albert R. Parsons heeded the call by the Knights of Labor for a nationwide strike after police had killed several union members protesting for an 8-hour workday, and mobilized more than 50,000 union members to Haymarket square. Police were sent in by their corporate masters to break up the rally and a bomb was thrown into the crowd, killing police officers and civilians. Although the culprit was never found for the bomb, the U.S. government used it as an excuse to brutally purge the labor movement and its radical leaders, sentencing eight anarchist labor leaders to death, regardless of the fact that most of them were not at the tragedy.
Although the percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States reached its highest number in 1954 at almost 35 percent and with the highest number of union members occurring in 1979 at an estimated 21.0 million, the radical roots of the U.S. labor movement never recovered. The stage was set for the destruction of the labor movement by Ronald Reagan and subsequent neoliberal Republican and Democrat governments by the decision of the biggest US union leaders to adopt a more business-friendly and non-combative approach to regressive US governments and corporations.
With the war on unions and the labor movement continuing with Right to Work laws and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision preventing unions from forcing members to pay dues the blows continue with the most recent numbers showing that the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to a union in 2017 was 10.7 percent, with the number of union members at 14.8 million. However, hope for the return of the radical labor movement is growing as the massive teacher strikes, growth of the IWW and the DSA sending clear signals that class struggle is back once again.
Teachers, living in traditional ‘Red states’ (states that consistently vote Republican), finally had enough of a neoliberal educational system that cut funds and services for years, leading the teachers in these states to be the lowest paid in the country, and destroying the quality and access of even the most basic education in the United States. Starting in West Virginia, which has a strong radical labor history, thousands of teachers went on strike for weeks until they won a 5 percent pay raise and other demands.
The teachers strikes spread like wildfire, reaching Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. Two common themes in the teacher strikes were that they all happened in traditionally ‘Red’ states, or states that have consistently voted red or conservative Republican in virtually all of their previous local and national elections in the last five decades, and all states that experienced the strikes were ones that had the lowest teachers pay, educational funding and services in the country.
The teacher strikes woke up a working and middle class that was no longer going to sit idly by while politicians and corporations continued to exploit them while sitting on billions of dollars of profit.
Noah Karvelis, one of the teachers and organizers that went on strike in Arizona, indicated that the successful teacher strike in West Virginia was the spark that after decades of teacher exploitation in the state got the teachers in Arizona thinking, “Wait a second. We haven't seen a raise in 10 years. Our kids don't have the textbooks they need. We have 35 kids in our class. We need to do something. It's our turn to get organized,” Karvelis explained in an interview with teleSUR.
Another example of class struggle returning to the United States is with the organizing efforts of the IWW. The IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, or “The Wobblies” is a historical union that although not nearing their peak membership of more than 150,000 active members in the early 20th century, has received a massive surge of interest and membership lately.
This can be mostly attributed to the IWW having a specific anti-capitalist mission statement and a horizontal structure that stresses solidarity between workers, in contrast to the larger and more mainstream AFL-CIO, whose union bosses regularly cut deals with corporate bosses and Democrats. The IWW, though still small in number of active members in comparison to other U.S. unions, have had a more than 262 percent growth of membership between 2006-2016 and the number keeps rising.
The IWW has recently started unionizing previously untouchable corporations such as Starbucks, Whole Foods , Jimmy Johns , and campaign workers. Luis Brennan, an organizer for the IWW, spoke to teleSUR about why their organizing model has seen recent success.
“It's easy to forget that back in the day many workers joined unions because they saw them as vehicles for dramatic transformation of our world away from exploitative and oppressive capitalism and toward a liberatory socialism...With our unique model of welcoming workers in all industries and organizing the worker rather than the workplace under an anti-capitalist banner, we have an opportunity to be a conduit for many young people's political vision to build a more dynamic and powerful labor movement.”
One of the biggest successes of the IWW in recent years was joining the Burgerville Workers Union campaign. Burgerville, a massive fast food chain that is mainly located in the Pacific Northwest in the United States, consistently talked to the media about how well they treated their workers, but consistently paid them poverty wages and employed a bunch of union busting and intimidation tactics throughout the unionizing campaign.
However, after a more than a year-campaign to try to negotiate with the corporation, the Burgerville Workers Union, a union associated with the IWW who also received solidarity from Portland’s local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, took matters into their own hands and became the first fast food union in the history of the United States.
Burgerville Union member Jimmy talked to teleSUR about how solidarity among their fellow workers on the shop floor was essential and how unions are so much more than just wages and benefits.
"Our anti-capitalist leanings mean we see unions as a vehicle for broader social change, and a way of empowering people to make that change in their own lives. I think the labor movement can be a space for regular people to exert tremendous power, in a way that our country hasn’t seen in a long time."
Maybe due to the massive popularity of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the fact that Millennials prefer socialism over capitalism, or the fact that we are experiencing the greatest display of wealth inequality in history, and young people in the United States are waking up as the most indebted and underemployed generation and will be the first generation in the U.S. since the Great Depression where their standard of living will be less than their parents. But due to those reasons and many others, in spite of the continuous media propaganda and hegemony condemning socialism, socialism is back and not going anywhere anytime soon.
One example of the growing power of the socialist movement in the United States is the Democratic Socialists of America, a left-wing group that has rapidly become the largest socialist organization in the United States after Trump’s victory with over 40,000 members. As well, it has recently received massive attention with huge legislative victories such as the victory of Alexendria Ocasio Cortez in the New York primary over corporate Democrat Joe Crowley, the victory of Lee Carter in Virginia’s State house of the Republican majority leader, and numerous other local, state, and national victories throughout the United States.
While some on the left have criticized DSA as a slightly more progressive version of the corporate Democrat party, it is the first anti-capitalist party with electoral power in the United States since the time of Eugene Debs, and DSA members and the organization have endorsed the pro-Palestinian boycott movement BDS against the Israeli occupation, have called for the abolition of ICE, and have taken other clear leftist stances such as Medicare for all, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and has developed key relationships with grassroots orgs and working-class communities.
Charles Allen, an organizer of the Miami chapter of DSA, explains to teleSUR the pull of the group to thousands of people around the United States thus, "there is consensus within the Democratic Socialists of America that capitalism, the socioeconomic system we are currently under, is an immensely exploitative, unequal, and undemocratic socioeconomic system."
He went on to stress that his organization and its members "believe that another world is possible, one where both the economy and society are run democratically for the benefit of all of humanity, rather than the profits of the few. We call this liberatory vision 'democratic socialism'...in order to do so we must build a mass movement that is uncompromisingly democratic, socialist, feminist, anti-racist, internationalist and opposed to all forms of oppression."
From the teachers strikes, to the Fight for 15, to Black Lives Matter, to the rapid growth in DSA, from the massive potential of union organizing in IWW, to the massive protests against Trump’s Immigration policy, has the U.S. left finally found new life? One consistent aspect of each of these massive campaigns has been their grassroots and working-class basis, their embrace of a true left-wing discourse, and the solidarity amongst the movements and workers.
Speaking to teleSUR in a recent interview, Cole Dorsey, an IWW organizer says one way forward is by, “continuing to organize with our co-workers and community members, develop a ‘culture of solidarity’ where we come together as a class in mutual aid and collectively fight back, not waiting for any union bosses or politicians approval but acting right now.”
A new way forward, instead of co-opted deradicalized corporate politics from above, seems to be from the left, and from below, with coalitions between progressive grassroots groups and unions and solidarity being essential. Karvelis says, “When you stand united, you can create a change. The teachers in Arizona became tired of waiting on politicians and created change themselves. When your voice is unheard for so long, you must take power into your own hands. And for the teachers of Arizona, and the rest of the working class, that means getting organized.”
“The next step for workers, as it always has been, is to organize and fight!... We can't win unless workers take action and we have a real opportunity to do so today. Everywhere people see that the lives they're living don't work, that they need more and they deserve better. They're ready and even excited to take action, and it's our role as the organized labor movement to support that fire in taking shape, winning real changes, and making important strides to making another world not only possible but a reality!”
-Luis Brennan, IWW organizer-
This Fourth of July, let’s honor the radical legacy of the U.S. Labor movement and the return of class struggle to the United States by getting organized.