Middle East

Another 1934 Is Just around the Corner

By The Editors

It’s fair to say that all class-conscious trade unionists recognize that the greatest labor upsurge in American labor history was kicked-off by three citywide strikes in the year of 1934—by autoworkers in Toledo, teamsters in Minneapolis, and longshoremen in San Francisco.

Most would also agree that the strategy that made the great labor upsurge of the ’30s possible—class struggle as opposed to class collaboration—was imposed on the unions by the rank-and-file and the new generation of working-class leaders among them. It’s even more widely understood that the Great Depression and the sudden steep decline in working people’s living and working conditions was the objective force that fueled the mass rank-and-file rebellion that erupted in 1934.

But what is not so well known is why it took five long years after the 1929 collapse of the economy before the American working class seemed to draw the conclusion that either they must begin a no-holds-barred, mass mobilization for a fight-to-the-finish for better wages, hours, and working conditions—or sink ever deeper into pauperization.

To answer this question is one of the purposes of this statement by the editors of Socialist Viewpoint magazine. But our main purpose is to make the case that the five-year purgatory through which our predecessors had to pass through back then is very similar to the nearly three decades of purgatory many of today’s workers have passed through since a similar, but far more slowly developing, decline in mass living standards began in 1980.

We will further argue that the sudden quickening of this long decline in the living standards of the American working class, though it began early in 1980, was actually set in motion in 1947 when the Taft-Hartley “Slave-Labor Law” was rammed through Congress by the bipartisan capitalist government.

Most union-conscious workers would also agree that the most conservative pro-capitalist wing of the labor bureaucracy played an indispensable role in the enactment of Taft-Hartley. But they played an even more infamous role in the successful implementation of its various anti-strike provisions, as well as having inserted clauses in most union contracts forcing workers to cross the picket lines of sister unions in the decades following the enactment of the labor law.

This, of course, was in gross violation of the principle of class solidarity upon which trade unionism is founded. The principle is embodied in the labor slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all!”

In other words, the attack on the gains made by working people in the years between 1934 and the end of 1946 can be laid directly at the feet of the labor officialdom.

But only a minority of today’s trade-union activists has come to understand that this is the root cause of the transformation of the working class from a force capable of bringing the mightiest industrial corporations to their knees, into one that appears to have lost its ability to defend anything whatever of what was won by workers in the hundreds of years of class struggle upon which the heroic conquests of the ’30s were founded.

Most importantly, we are rapidly approaching a time when workers will once again come to the conclusion that either they must also begin a collective fight-to-the-finish for better wages, hours, and working conditions, as our predecessors did, or sink ever deeper-down the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

But while it often seems that big changes like general strikes and other semi-revolutionary and revolutionary uprisings happen all at once, they are always preceded by countless small changes in objective conditions and their reflection in the minds of the ordinary people. A radical change has been steadily taking place in mass consciousness.

Take, for instance, the level of opposition to the war in Iraq and the attitude most of us have that politicians and their votes on legislation are for sale to the highest bidder.

However, when sudden changes in the world around us occur, such as occurred in 1934, rarely can we see the point at which quantity changes into quality. In fact, it is generally recognized that these radical changes always come as a complete surprise, no one having predicted the day, month, or even year that such events would occur. Nor could anyone have possibly predicted that in 1934 there would be three strikes in three cities in which virtually the entire working class of these cities would play a vital part in deciding their outcomes.

It’s a lot easier to see when a trend has begun that will have a lasting impact. Thus, we can make such a prediction regarding the trend toward worsening wages, benefits, and job insecurity now under way. Despite the current state of deepening hopelessness and relative worker passivity, it is our conviction that another 1934 is, indeed, just around the corner. A new wave of revolutionary mass action is inevitable, and it’s closer than the great majority in the U.S. and the world may think.

If we look back at the year preceding the sudden explosion of mass worker resistance it will be seen that the mood of the working class in 1933, the fourth year of the Great Depression, was very similar to the mood of workers in 2006 and the preceding few decades! In fact, it could be said that the feeling of powerlessness that engulfed working people for the first four terrible years after the stock-market crash of October 1929 is comparable to the sense of powerlessness engulfing workers in the year 2006.

Alongside the deepening discouragement among workers today, however, there is a diametrically opposed trend in worker consciousness that began in early 2006. This trend, though still restricted to a minority of our class, is nonetheless an important manifestation of rising class-consciousness and the kind of fighting spirit that had begun spreading through the ranks of active trade union militants in 1933.

1933: Signs of changing worker consciousness

If we take a brief look back at 1933 for signs of an awakening of American labor then, and compare it to the present year, it will provide a basis for estimating the likelihood that such an awakening has begun again.

In 1933, there were at least two events suggesting that a change in mass worker consciousness was underway. From demoralization and passivity, workers started to move toward the realization that the only choices before them were either more years of hard and harder times or else rise up and begin a collective struggle for higher wages and better working conditions—or die trying.

The first indication that a spirit of class struggle had begun spreading throughout the working class, both employed and unemployed, was the outbreak of a mass organizing strike by thousands of newly organized hotel workers in New York City. The spirit of renewed combativity culminated in a strike that succeeded in paralyzing all the city’s biggest and best hotels, with a heavy impact on the tourist industry.

The big hotel strike ended with a partial but important victory: For the first time in years, hotel workers, who had lacked union representation, won recognition of their union as the bargaining agent for all hotel workers in the city. And while they won nothing yet in the way of a contract, they won something more important. A flood of unorganized hotel workers joined the union, multiplying the impact of union recognition by the owners and managers of New York City’s major hotels.

The second indication that something new had begun was another mass organizing strike, this time by workers in the coal-distribution centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul, organized and led by Teamster Local 574. This strike also ended in the same sort of partial victory—recognition by the bosses of their union as its bargaining agent and a much larger union membership.

A word is in order for those who may not know the difference between union recognition won through the force of a strike and that won via an National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] election. Recognition won by a strike gives the union the upper hand when bargaining over wages, hours, and working conditions begins. Recognition by the peaceful road of an NLRB election does not have the same force.

These two partial strike victories were an indication that mass worker passivity was turning into its very opposite. Masses of workers had embarked on the road of class struggle.

2006: The emergence of Soldiers of Solidarity

Similar to the events in 1933 that were precursors of the three citywide strike victories in the following year, 2006 saw the emergence of Soldiers of Solidarity, which also augurs things to come.

While events in 2006 were not of the same kind that occurred more than 70 years ago, they demonstrated an even more advanced growth in class consciousness—such as we saw in 1933, by a small but important layer of trade-union activists, all of whom are concentrated in the strongholds of labor power centered in America’s industrial heartland.

Although in this case there was nothing like the two big strikes of 1933, we witnessed the rise of what can be most accurately described as the formation of a class-struggle rank-and-file movement of workers. It was precipitated by a carefully calculated decision by General Motors and its spinoff Delphi Corp, to deal a major blow to one of American labor’s most powerful unions, the United Auto Workers.

Those who have read any of this year’s editions of Socialist Viewpoint know we speak of a small but growing formation that calls itself Soldiers of Solidarity. Although SOS is only one of many similar formations, it appears to have heavily influenced the strategic orientation of most if not all of this wave of newly radicalizing rank-and-file formations in what is still the industrial heartland of mid-America—despite all the fluff about the “deindustrialization of America.”

So what exactly is there about SOS that makes it so important? It will be helpful to first say what SOS and most of its counterparts are not: It is not a more militant, nucleus of a rival union oriented toward replacing the UAW. Neither is it a union caucus devoted exclusively to challenging the incumbent bureaucratic misleadership for control over the UAW. It is that, of course, but it’s much more than that.

SOS has made it clear what it stands for in its numerous public statements distributed throughout the movements of left-wing trade-union activists in North America and beyond. They communicate mainly through the Internet, a powerful medium of mass communication. The Internet is a medium open to anyone with access to a computer. It has supplied rank-and-file workers with a powerful organizational and educational tool. And there can be no effective grass-roots organizing without teaching workers the lessons of labor history, its victories and defeats.

It’s all there in the written histories and the sort of oral histories one gets from old timers that are not only anecdotal but also contain condensations of the lessons of class struggle. These are a mix of what they learned from the books and from their own experiences in strikes and other class battles.

But, of course, the most important lesson of labor history had occurred in the explosive year of 1934. The new spirit of militancy and combativity that marked the first 13 years of accelerating and deepening class confrontations, had spread with amazing speed as workers rushed on to the road of direct mass action to defend and advance their class interests. It’s as though anger and a rising sense of class consciousness had been growing below the surface of mass consciousness.

In fact, anyone who thinks seriously about the change in mass consciousness from the time of the official beginning of the Vietnam War can sense that a state of mass radicalization has engulfed America.

In our view, it is as deep in some respects as it had been during the Great Depression. However, what has yet to crystallize is the advanced state of mass class-consciousness that broke onto the surface throughout the amazing year of 1934. In fact, it can break out just as suddenly and explosively as it did then. And while no one can predict when or what sort of event will serve as the straw that breaks the camel’s back, it’s not likely that we will have long to wait before quantity changes into quality.

In fact labor history teaches that when workers are demobilized and demoralized by misleadership or the lack of a leadership that has absorbed the lessons of labor history, they tend to be passive. And the few mavericks among them who try to get the class struggle ball rolling again often themselves become demoralized when they don’t get the response they hoped for.

Nevertheless, SOS did get a response from a very important layer of newly radicalizing assembly-line workers, who show a far more advanced level of class consciousness than any we have seen since the end of the last great labor upsurge in 1946.

What is there about SOS that sets it apart?

There are five basic characteristics of what could be called a class-struggle program of action for the trade-union movement as presented by SOS.

It’s first most distinguishing feature is its open advocacy of the tactics and strategy of class struggle—as against the official UAW and labor-movement strategy of class collaboration—although the labor officialdom prefer to call their policy a “partnership” between labor and capital.

Secondly, SOS welcomes—as most of its counterparts do—all workers into its fold, both members of the UAW and members of other unions. But they don’t stop there; they also welcome into their ranks all unorganized workers in America. This reinforces its class-struggle character.

Third, even though most international unions in this country are formally affiliated to either the AFL-CIO or its recent splitoff, Change to Win, which are in turn affiliated with one or another of the world’s international labor federations; rather than being champions of class solidarity they give it empty and meaningless lip-service.

On the other hand, contrasting sharply with the bureaucratic conservatism of the latter, SOS and most of its counterparts suggest in many ways that they are genuinely committed to international class solidarity.

Fourth, along with Soldiers of Solidarity, Members for CHANGE!, GM Gypsy, Future of the Union, Live Bait and Ammo, Disgruntled Autoworker, Catholic Worker, Solidarity Now, The Barking Dog, Factory Rat and many others, most adhere to the guiding principle that workers can win from the boss class only what they are strong enough to take.

Fifth, SOS and its counterparts adhere to the principle of genuine workers’ democracy, which is not at all the same as what passes for capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracy is restricted, essentially, to the right to vote for candidates on one day in an election year. But almost every one of these politicians is a millionaire. Thus, workers have a choice between not only pro-capitalists but also actual capitalist politicians.

Workers’ democracy, however, is far more democratic than the capitalist variety, as could be seen during the best days of the labor movement. But under bureaucratic administration and control, it is far less today than it had been in the 1930s and early ’40s. Even so, workers always had and still have the power to make decisions at regular meetings regarding local union policy, including the right to override decisions made by full-time officials from one meeting to the next.

They also have a measure of control over the decisions made by their delegates at meetings of higher bodies encompassing more than one local union. But the higher up the bureaucratic hierarchy we go, rank-and-file democratic control declines, reaching zero at the top. Consequently, at those higher levels it takes semi-revolutionary mass action to regain the kind of democratic rank-and-file control over their unions that had been won in the 1930s.

Moreover, in the years before Taft-Hartley, most unions met weekly, and election of local union officers was held once a year. After the enactment of the “Slave-Labor Law,” the frequency of most union meetings had declined from weekly to monthly and the election of most local union officers from yearly to once every three years. Now, most regional and national elections of union officers are only once in every five years.

But when the rank-and-file get riled up enough, union attendance always tends to rise. And when workers are riled up and begin to hear their own discontent and growing inclination to take direct control over their union being voiced by more and more of their coworkers, quantity changes into quality and confidence about what can be accomplished rises.

It should be no surprise that the recent history of working-class powerlessness has raised the question of whether or not workers still have the power to change the world.

Lets take a closer look at how this notion has been spread far and wide by the powers that be.

How the mass media fosters the illusion of powerlessness

If there is a theme that runs like a brightly colored thread through the capitalist-owned-and-controlled mass media, it is that the working class, like the old gray mare in the song, “ain’t what it used to be.”

The usual argument offered by so-called professional labor experts and pro-labor professors—many of whom are on the payrolls of the billionaire owners of the mass media—is the myth that there has been and continues to be a process they call the “deindustrialization of America.”

But this is a cleverly contrived myth having no foundation in fact. Industrialization, far from being diminished, has been uninterruptedly intensified every minute in every hour of every day since World War II brought an artificial end to the Great Depression (at the cost of 62 million dead, or 2.5 percent of the world population). All big lies, however, are based on a grain of truth, and so too is the evidence offered for what is wrongly labeled “deindustrialization.”

What passes for deindustrialization is the never-ending process of scientific and industrial development that serves to replace human labor with ever-more productive machines. In other words, capitalism creates ever-more efficient factories, employing ever-fewer workers turning out ever-greater quantities of products. Rather than that being de-industrialization, it’s an advance in industrialization.

But this myth has another side to it. And that, too, is also a matter of factual and logical sleight of hand. That is, by mis-labeling this process as the “deindustrialization of America,” the mass media’s manufacturers-of-public-opinion create the illusion that better-paid jobs are disappearing only in America, when it is in reality a global phenomenon!

In other words, machines are replacing human labor everywhere in the capitalist world, not just in the USA.

The myth of deindustrialization serves another purpose for the mythmakers. And this is its main objective. It is designed to create the illusion that the enemy of American workers is their counterparts in other lands (or other cities in the USA) who are stealing jobs by “offering to work for lower wages. Thus, the employer gives the former the option of “offering” to work for even lower wages than had been “offered” by the latter.

But that’s not all this myth is designed to accomplish. In fact, in addition to the purposes already described, its larger aim is to shift the blame for decades of givebacks handed over to the bosses by labor bureaucrats to purely objective forces beyond anyone’s control. It is the pseudoscientific version of what is called, “An Act of God!”

Workers ‘ain’t what they used to be’?

Bureaucrats, bosses and the latter’s handmaiden, the mass media, have belatedly recognized that the industrial workforce has far greater economic power at its disposal than do commercial, financial, and service-sector workers. Industrial workers engaged in production, transportation, and other basic industries, are capable of bringing the entire economy to a grinding halt, while those elsewhere in the economy do not and cannot have such an impact.

In other words, industrial workers are the heavy battalions of the working class army. But its here where the mythmakers’ argument falls—only the army as a whole can win the war. And it doesn’t matter what role workers play in the economy, as a class and as a majority that dwarfs to pygmy size the capitalist minority, they have the objective power they always had from the 19th century until the present day.

Now let’s examine the relevant facts more closely.

Although the workers in basic industry are certainly fewer, both absolutely and relatively, they retain exactly the same power to make the wheels of industry stop and go.

For instance, if say, all four million workers in basic industry went on strike and kept it shut down tight, that would add up to a huge power in the hands of this sector of the working class to impose its will on the mightiest of the world’s industrial corporations—as was done in the 1930s.

But let’s say, instead of 4 million there are now only 2 million industrial workers, but nonetheless this smaller number was still able to keep industry shut down hard and fast, in what way can the result be different?

All other things being equal, the overall effect is the same as when there were twice as many workers in basic industry.

The same dynamic applies to each plant or group of plants in the industrialized sector of the economy.

However, it must be emphasized that the more inclusive is the action of the working class, the greater is their power. In fact, the greatest power that industrial workers intrinsically possess is not their power to bring the entire economy to a halt, as important as that is. Rather, it is that when workers act as a class to defend and advance their common class interests; it is that which gives the entire working class, acting as a class, the power to change the world.

Moreover, to act as a class in the interests of the class as a whole, means to defend and advance the interests of all workers, throughout the economy, irrespective of race, sex, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic that differentiates one worker from another. And that includes the millions of workers who perceive themselves to be primarily a racial, religious, or national entity, with their existence as workers, seemingly, a subordinate characteristic.

If proof of our argument is needed, we need only look back at the official policy of the industrial unions that became the CIO in the mid-1930s, as against that of most craft unions that remained with the AFL regarding Black workers. All CIO unions welcomed their Black members while most AFL unions rejected them or organized them into segregated Jim Crow local unions. But when the UAW went on strike in the 1930s, Black and white UAW pickets worked as a team to bar Black and white scabs and strike-breakers from breaking through their picket lines.

In other words, the only effective response to the capitalist strategy of divide and conquer is class solidarity. And its ultimate expression is the slogan, “Workers of the World Unite, You Have Nothing to lose but Your Chains, and a World to Win!”

Thus, it’s no accident that Soldiers of Solidarity came into existence by forming the nucleus of a mass class-struggle left wing of the working class before a major new labor offensive has even begun. Rather it serves as proof of one of the most important lessons of class-struggle history: When one giant step forward by the working class ends and reaction takes over; it is invariably followed by the next big labor counter-offensive to regain lost ground and conquer new territory. But it always tends to begin from the highest point reached by the previous leap forward.

And finally, besides what SOS has already done along the lines of beginning from the highest point previously reached we have good reason to make this prediction:

Whereas the last upsurge never broke politically with the twin parties of American capitalism, the Democrats and Republicans, this one will not only organize workers as a class in the economic arena of class war but also in the political arena as well, and quickly rise to the most advanced state of mass class-consciousness.

Neither can we discount the possibility that this time it may not stop until the class war is won, capitalism is overthrown and the working class and its natural allies seize state power and become the ruling class. And from that point on, begins the process of abolishing all class and other distinctions between members of the human race and the state itself will wither away until there are no longer rulers and ruled.