Workers Have the Power to Change the World
By Nat Weinstein
The mass media consistently promotes the myth that the working class in America—if not elsewhere in the world as well—no longer has the power to change the world. But in a way not seen since the 1930s, proof mounts by the day that workers remain the central force in modern society capable of leading the masses of capitalism’s many victims in a struggle for a better world.
These words are being written on the day after French President Jacques Chirac was forced to rescind the youth labor law that would have given employers the right to fire all workers under the age of 26 for the first two years after being hired—without giving any reason whatever.
The victory by French workers over this latest assault on their living standards was far more significant than it may appear to American working people. The new law would also have denied young workers the multitude of social benefits they receive starting from the day they are hired—all of which were won in the course of the last 70 years of unending struggle between labor and capital.
It would be a mistake for anyone to think that in the wake of this defeat Chirac and his class will bow to the will of the people. Despite the growing danger that events in France will touch off a greater explosion of mass worker resistance, capitalists everywhere have no choice but to plow ahead with their ultimate goal of breaking workers’ power to resist ever deeper reductions in their wages and benefits.
One of the many contradictions inherent in the capitalist economy is that absolute profits tend to rise over the long term, at the very same time that the average rate of profit tends to fall. The ever-present threat to economic equilibrium is that the average profit rate will fall below the minimum that capitalists will accept as the normal risk of their invested capital. The entire capitalist world faces the danger of a cascade of real corporate bankruptcies, ending in a recession or depression.
The most serious bourgeois economists have acknowledged that a major collapse such as in the 1930s is not only inevitable but long overdue. Corporations can boost the average rate of profit by lowering labor costs, and thereby postpone the inevitable. For those capitalists who truly understand the laws of their economic system, postponing the inevitable is the only winning game they can play at this point in the 400-year history of world capitalism.
The lessons of the last 25 years
The current assault on the living standards of American workers began with the crushing of the national air-traffic controllers’ strike and its 17,500-member union, PATCO, in 1981-82.
Since then, every strike lasting more than a few months has been defeated, and shorter-lived strikes have ended with the bosses getting essentially what they demanded. Moreover, those local unions that tried to put up a fight were not only defeated after prolonged strikes, but in several instances they were crushed with the help of leaders of their parent unions.
In 1981, for instance, leaders of the AFL-CIO and its million-member affiliate, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), formally “supported” striking members of the air-traffic controllers’ union and denounced President Ronald Reagan for getting a court-ordered injunction to declare the PATCO strike illegal. However, the AFL-CIO leaders told all their affiliated unions and members to cross PATCO’s picket lines “because it’s the law and the law must be obeyed.” That betrayal marked the beginning of a quarter-century of defeated strikes.
On August 17, 1985, 1,750 meatpacking workers went on strike in the small Minnesota town of Austin to defend their union and living standards from Hormel Company’s demand for a significant reduction in wages and benefits and the imposition of a two-tier wage system that would sharply lower pay for all new hires.
Austin Local P-9 was one of the industrial unions built through militant strike struggles by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) even before the mass labor upsurge of the 1930s. Local P-9’s IWW founders, in fact, were the first in the United States to employ the sit-down strike in 1933 to gain union recognition.
When the P-9 strike began in 1985 it had the grudging support of the official leaders of its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers international union. But when the strike had reached its 10th month, UFCW leaders stabbed their striking local union in the back by chartering a new union, UFCW Local P-10, to represent “replacement workers” and other scabs who had been crossing P-9’s picket lines!
This strike proved to be more important than appeared at first sight. It served as a test conducted by the employers to gauge the fighting ability of a small local union with a long militant tradition.
While the top leaders of the AFL-CIO failed this test miserably, rank-and-file trade unionists across the country passed the test of P-9’s Hormel strike with flying colors. An impressive national movement in solidarity with striking members of Local P-9 was spontaneously mobilized across the country, including many militant local union leaders. This significant rank-and-file response, however, was ignored by virtually all regional and national union officials, and the treachery of the labor bureaucracy could not be overcome. In September 1986, a couple of months after the scab Local P-10 was created, Local P-9 strikers were crushed.
Ron Carey: An exception that proves the rule
There is always an exception that proves the rule, and there was indeed one big exception to the last 25 years of strikebreaking and union busting: the victorious national strike in 1997 by the Teamsters union against the world’s largest trucking company, the United Parcel Service (UPS).
There are two main reasons that the Teamsters succeeded while all others failed. In the first place, it was a national strike, and it’s not easy to break a nationwide strike of some 175,000 workers led by militant leaders of a union with 1.4 million members. The second factor was Teamsters leader Ron Carey and his chosen leadership team, who stood head-and-shoulders above their counterparts in the country’s most powerful international unions.
Carey had earned the reputation of strictly respecting the picket lines of all unions. In a city like New York one of its many unions is on strike almost every day in the year. Given the nature of their union, therefore, truck drivers had the power to help many of their sister unions throughout the year by refusing to make deliveries across any union picket lines. Ron Carey, as one of the last of the generation of “plain and simple” union leaders who had not sold out, had learned long ago that if your union doesn’t respect the picket lines of others, it cannot expect their support when your own union is forced to go out on strike.
On the basis of his well-deserved reputation as a militant and principled trade unionist, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—a rank-and-file caucus in the Teamsters Union—endorsed Carey for union president along with his slate of candidates for the union’s highest council, the General Executive Board.
This was not a typical Teamster election, however. National unions traditionally elect their leaders at union conventions. The Teamsters Union was one of the first national unions to be forced by the bipartisan capitalist government to hold a referendum-style national election of the union’s top leadership. Why did the government order this seemingly more democratic election? There’s always a “good reason” that capitalists do what they do, and as the saying goes, there is always the real reason.
The Federal government was operating on the wisdom prevailing in pro-capitalist circles at the time. Experience had taught employers and their government representatives that when employer-friendly union officials became discredited and thus outlived their usefulness to the employer, they could be replaced by others of their stripe who were a mite less discredited, and nothing would have to change. The record shows that in almost every case in the last 25 years, at least, even those officials elected on a platform of union reform began to be discredited long before the end of their first five-year term at the head of their union.
More importantly, in the case of the Teamster bureaucracy the government had two reasons for wanting to replace them with other more effective labor lieutenants of capitalism. First, the Teamster bureaucracy was under the thumb of the mob, who used gangster tactics to control the rank and file, which is why the bosses and their government had allowed them to take over the union in the first place.
But these mob-connected bureaucrats also sometimes used the same tactics to rip off a portion of capitalist profits and used it to gain influence over “legitimate” trucking companies and become legitimate businessmen themselves.
These were the real reasons for instituting a referendum-type election of the Teamster national leadership. However, after Ron Carey and his slate of candidates for the union’s General Executive Board were elected in December 1991, they conducted union affairs radically differently from their predecessors. Among other noteworthy accomplishments, Carey’s leadership team carried out an effective union-building campaign that was highlighted by the first nationwide strike against UPS in February 1994, ending with a clear victory.
Carey showed he was ready, willing, and able to lead a winning strike when President Bill Clinton got a court injunction outlawing a national Teamster strike against UPS. Carey did what genuine workers’ leaders in the 1930s and ’40s had often done. He defied Clinton’s anti-strike injunction as a violation of working people’s right to collectively withhold their labor and exercise their right to free speech and assembly—rights “guaranteed” by the U.S. Constitution.
In other words, the criminal violating the law of the land in this case was not Carey, nor his union; rather, it was President Clinton and his bipartisan Congress. When it comes to the human and democratic rights of the rich, presidents, governors, and judges hold these rights to be sacred and zealously enforce them to the full extent of the law.
But when it comes to the human and democratic rights of workers and others without big bank accounts, the Constitution has no bearing in the eyes of the powers that be.
As a matter of fact, when it comes to protecting the poor from the rich, the guarantee of democratic and human rights is not the U.S. Constitution. Rather, it is the kind of mass action in the streets and workplaces of America that have so often in the past been organized by millions of workers in mass strikes and other forms of direct action. When push comes to shove, the only way strikes have ever been won is by mobilizing as many pickets as needed to keep struck factories and other workplaces shut down tight.
Mass action in the streets and workplaces of the nation is a fundamental weapon not only in the hands of the working class, but in the hands of all victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression—as the French workers have so brilliantly demonstrated. Staging mass action was the only way that millions of Black Americans were able to deal a major blow to Jim Crow, that is, legally enforced segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North in the 1960s. Millions of African Americans marched in the streets of the USA and resisted everything racist America fought them with, including dogs, cops, fire hoses, and jails.
The second national Teamster strike against UPS
As important as that first UPS strike was, it was merely the dress rehearsal for the much more significant victory over UPS after Carey’s leadership team was reelected in December 1996.
In August 1997, the Teamster leadership, with the new authority their election victory had given them,1 again went on strike against UPS, and Clinton again sought and obtained an anti-strike injunction illegally barring Teamsters from exercising their right to strike under the U.S. Constitution.
Immediately after Teamster pickets shut down every one of the many UPS distribution centers in the United States and Canada, UPS bosses attempted to drive strikebreakers through a few Teamster picket lines. Wherever that happened, however, Teamster leaders made sure that more than enough reinforcements were sent to keep the scab trucks out. In at least one highly publicized case, in Boston, strikers held their ground against strike-breaking cops as well.
It is crucial that union pickets have the full support of their union leaders. By making clear that Teamster pickets had this support, Carey sent an unmistakable message to UPS bosses, cops, and the entire capitalist establishment that this strike was not going to be easily stopped.
Teamster leaders got out in front and took full responsibility for every action taken by their members, because they knew that the bosses or their government would attempt to victimize individual strikers, as they so often do. If the strike was lost, the General President of the union would be at the top of the list of victims. Pickets knew their leaders would back them up 100 percent. That’s the kind of action that inspires the membership to do everything in their power to win a strike.
Thus, in a matter of just 15 days, UPS called it quits and signed a highly significant contract that not only won concessions for all Teamsters, but granted the biggest benefits to the lowest-paid part-timers loading trucks inside the distribution centers.
Such a two-tier or multi-tier wage system had been abolished in the ’30s when the Teamsters Union was transformed from a moribund union into a dynamic and rapidly growing industrial union.
Mass picketing the only way to win
The Teamster victory over UPS in 1997 proved, once again, that the strike remains one of the most effective weapons in the hands of the working class. But it also proves that if workers give up their right to collectively withhold their labor, they will be unable to defend their wages and their way of life as well.
The right to strike is only a small part of workers’ democratic and human rights. Although most strikes are legal, without the right to picket—to peacefully assemble in sufficient number to stop replacement workers and professional strikebreakers from taking their jobs—strikes cannot be won. That’s why employers are routinely granted injunctions limiting picketing to only a handful of pickets. If strikers and their leaders do nothing to stop this, their right to strike becomes virtually meaningless.
In other words, the old saw that whether a strike is won or lost depends on “which side, workers or bosses, can stay out one day longer,” is only half-right. Bosses don’t just wait for workers to return to work; they mobilize other, long-unemployed workers and professional strikebreakers and herd them through what amounts to token picket lines.
We get a clue to the meaning of the word “picket” from any good dictionary. Mine reads as follows: “a person, as a member of a labor union on strike, stationed outside a factory, store, public building, etc., often carrying a sign, to demonstrate protest, keep strikebreakers from entering, dissuade people from buying, etc.” And if there are not enough pickets to “keep strikebreakers from entering,” nothing can keep them out.
It cannot be said too often: mass picketing is exactly how strikes were won in the 1930s and ’40s and again by Teamsters in 1997—and it is also how they will be won once again by hundreds of millions of workers around the world!
But the Teamster victory in 1997 was short-lived, because “labor-friendly” President Bill Clinton got revenge for his class by hauling Teamster General President Ron Carey before a U.S. government-authorized kangaroo court over which a gaggle of government-appointed corporation lawyers presided as judge, jury, prosecutor—and executioner to boot—without finding him guilty as charged.
The official leaders of the AFL-CIO did not voice even the mildest protest. They silently allowed a democratically elected union leader, for the first time in U.S. labor history, to be removed from office because he led his 175,000 UPS Teamsters in the first clear strike victory over a major national corporation since 1981.
The impact on the left by labor’s long retreat
The most recent attacks against working people’s living standards is beginning to lead the most class-conscious workers in the richest and most powerful citadels of world imperialism toward challenging the capitalist status quo and not merely its so-called excesses. In other words, the objective preconditions for socialist revolution that had been set in motion by the Great Depression of the 1930s are now being rapidly recreated.
Increasing numbers of people throughout the world have over the last several decades been drawing ever more radical conclusions. And yet, at the same time, the last generation of socialists, particularly in the USA, have been moving to the right rather than the left. These socialists were a product of the powerful wave of working-class struggles that swept across the planet in the ’30s. And history will be repeated with the next big upsurge that is now showing the classic signs of a new beginning.
In 1947 a bipartisan Congress enacted what most members of the labor movement called at the time the “slave-labor” Taft-Hartley Act. Many former left-wing socialists then began losing confidence in the working class. They blamed labor’s rank and file for the labor bureaucracy’s movement toward complete subordination of the class interests of workers to capitalist profits.
Thus, many of those who had once devoted their lives to the struggle for a better world, a world no longer plagued by man’s inhumanity to man, developed the viewpoint that socialism was no longer a realistic solution. From there, many former revolutionary socialists concluded that the workers were no longer the only force capable of leading all the victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression toward the overthrow of the existing social order and toward the reconstitution of world society on a socialist foundation.
Workers have too much to lose?
While experience teaches that most of those who have retreated from revolutionary socialist conclusions can no longer find their way back to the socialist future, we hope that the mounting evidence of a resurgence of the workers of America and the world may help restore their lost confidence in workers’ power to change the world. It is to be hoped that with a little help from those of us who remain committed to the revolutionary socialist perspective, some of those lost souls will find their way back to the future they once sought.
However, it’s far more important that those of us who remain committed to the socialist perspective help the millions of workers who are now going through a profound period of radicalization to find their way to embracing the strategy and tactics of class struggle. All the gains won by workers in the 1930s and ’40s can be taken back when capitalism sees an opportunity to launch a powerful counter-offensive. And, of course, that began with the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and was escalated in 1981.
I think it will be helpful to remember, as this writer and most of us were taught by our history teachers in elementary school, that revolution is an important part of American history. It was written in the history books of my youth, at least, that the European and other immigrants who founded the United States had been revolutionists who preached such radical notions as Thomas Jefferson’s: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
Moreover, I was also taught in my earliest years in school that American revolutionaries have already carried out two great revolutions against social, economic, and political injustice. First they fought for the right to self-determination from British tyranny and, starting in 1776, for independence from King George III and the British Empire. They fought once again in 1861 against the system of chattel slavery that the slave-holders of the Confederate States of America fought to defend. These were classic political and social revolutions carried through to successful conclusions at those times.
But the capitalists of today have become the equivalent of King George III and British capitalism in 1776, as did the reactionary slave-owners of the Confederacy in 1861. These slave holders also acted as capitalists by investing in capitalist enterprises, which is why the U.S. slave system has been characterized by historians as “that peculiar institution.”
Finally, history has repeatedly shown that outlived social orders and their rulers cannot be overthrown by electoral means, but only by the revolutionary methods used by the American people twice before in our history.
Why many left-wingers say they changed their minds
Former socialists give many reasons for changing their minds about the feasibility of a socialist revolution in the USA—though many of them still concede that one is badly needed. The first and most important argument they give for changing their minds is that the world working class—in the most advanced industrial countries—ain’t what it used to be. That is, their vastly increased standard of living has transformed them from a class that had “nothing to lose but its chains” into one that now has too much to lose!
This conclusion is based on a deep misunderstanding of what workers believe is an acceptable standard of living; that is, a standard they believe is rightfully theirs. Workers in different lands, and at different times in the history of the world, all have or had different notions of what are necessities and what are luxuries, and therefore how they define an acceptable minimum living standard.
The poorest and most deprived among the American working class today enjoy a living standard that in many important respects is higher than that enjoyed by Moguls, Kings, and Emperors.
Such things as electric lighting, heating, indoor hot-and-cold running water, bathrooms for washing, refrigerators and other ways of preserving food; as well as gas-fired stoves for cooking—all things enjoyed by many if not all of the poorest among us in the United States today who are not yet homeless—were not available to those of their class who lived a hundred or more years ago or in many countries of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. This sector of our class will fight for what they have just as hard as they will fight to rise higher on the American economic ladder.
Unfortunately, the danger is that when living standards sink to their lowest, many at the bottom of the heap become demoralized and lose all hope of rising out of their miserable lives. But that depends on the mood of the great majority who have not lost hope in their ability to keep or regain what was taken from them.
Many workers who are living close to or below the poverty line today enjoy amenities unavailable to their counterparts in preceding generations, including things considered luxuries as recently as in the 1920s and ’30s, like radios, TVs, and even used cars. There are millions of workers in the USA today who depend on their cars to get to work or the supermarket; a car is no longer a luxury.
Millions of workers are now desperately trying to maintain the living standards they still enjoy by maxing out their credit cards and using up the equity in their homes. When they face repossession of their cars and foreclosure on their homes, everything will change and they will realize that they have no choice but to fight back with everything they’ve got.
Now, when we look at things from this viewpoint, it can be more easily understood why the higher living standards won by workers in the world’s most advanced industrial countries has not changed them from a class “with nothing to lose but their chains and a world to win.” In fact, they will fight harder than ever to keep what they, their parents, their grandparents, and generations of working people as a class have sacrificed so much to get.
And that, we must insist, has made workers a more, not less, powerful force for changing the world!
1 The ruling class had well before 1996 learned the bitter lesson that Carey was not just another employer friendly labor bureaucrat; he was cut from a different mold. This time they launched a major propaganda offensive in the mass media denigrating Carey and promoting James Hoffa Jr. The first Jimmy Hoffa was taught class struggle tactics by none other than revolutionary socialist and member of the Socialist Workers Party, Farrell Dobbs. However, although Jimmy Hoffa Sr. later came under the domination of the mob, he was, however still enough of a militant to have been assassinated by the mob for resisting their efforts to keep him under their thumb after he was released from prison for common crimes against the Teamsters Union as well as against Teamster bosses. They assassinated himsimply simply because as Teamster president Hoff Sr. had still done a far better job for his members than did most other labor bureaucrats.
But the son was nothing like the father. Though he never worked a day as a Teamster, Hoffa Jr. was a lawyer hired by Teamster bureaucrats only because he was the first Jimmy Hoffa’s son, and because his father’s militant reputation shined him up as a militant, it gave him credibility as the Teamster bureaucracy’s candidate against Carey’s reelection.