Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party (England and Wales CWI) General Secretary, is visiting the US, where he attended a 15Now campaign, conference on 26 April. The event gathered working class fighters and young people and set out the steps to win $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle. Below, Peter sets out the context for this historic event, by looking at America’s great labour movement traditions around May Day and the 1886 Haymarket Martyrs.
“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today”.
These were the last words cried out by August Spies, a labour activist, as he went to the gallows. His words, which had a dramatic effect on us, are inscribed on the monument of the 1886 Haymarket Martyrs in Forest Cemetery in Chicago. In 1867 the eight-hour day had become law, but employers everywhere ignored it.
Conditions, however, were so bad and pay was so low that the fight to get hours reduced without loss in pay caught the imagination, and the Organized Trades and Labor Unions organised a march on 1 May and a few days later a rally in Haymarket Square. A bomb was thrown - it was never discovered by whom - but the rally was attacked by police. Several police and workers died.
Afterwards a massive crackdown was ordered. Martial law was decreed all over the country, and eleven local activists were rounded up, regardless of whether they had been at the rally. They were framed up and four were hanged. The US capitalists could not have imagined the worldwide movement they would ignite in protest against their brutal actions which took up the cause which the martyrs had fought for - the eight-hour day. May Day, 1 May, became international workers’ day.
The world working class took up this demand through the Second International in mass demonstrations for the eight-hour day, in which Friedrich Engels, the co-founder with Karl Marx of scientific socialism, participated. We have still not achieved the demand more than 100 years later. The same struggle is now being undertaken by Kshama Sawant and the comrades of Socialist Alternative in the campaign for 15Now. We participated in a tremendous conference over the weekend of 25-27 April.
We have observed at first-hand the indescribable conditions of the poor and the working class in what is still overall the richest country in the world. Forty six million people are officially poor and their position is worsening. The New York Times reports that the poverty rate declined from 1960 to 1980, but it soared to nearly 38% in 1990 and is now near to 41%.
The picture of the position of the poor in the rural areas in particular is like a description of the third world. For instance in Tennessee the death rate from drug overdoses - a product of mass unemployment and searing poverty - is more than eight times the national average.
In one area of Tennessee, a former coal-mining area, “Of the 115 babies born in 2011 ... over 40 had been exposed to drugs ... whole families have been wiped out in this county: mother, father, children,” said the local sheriff. Another woman added: “When coal was king, there were two movie theatres and a high school and everybody worked.”
But it is not just the poor who have been affected by the crisis. Again the New York Times reports: “US middle class no longer world’s richest”. You have to remember that the capitalists and their press here are unable to even concede that a working class exists and therefore puts working people into the category of “middle class”.
However, the dire economic situation forces them to admit that “the idea that the median American has so much more income than the middle class in all other parts of the world, is not true these days... surveys by government agencies suggest that since 2010 pay in Canada has risen faster than pay in the United States and is most likely higher. Pay in several European countries has also risen faster since 2010 than it has in the United States.”
Conversely the incomes of the rich are skyrocketing. “Companies in the United States’ economy distribute a smaller share of their bounty to the middle class and poor than similar companies elsewhere. Top executives make substantially more money in the United States than in other wealthy countries. The minimum wage is lower. Labour unions are weaker.” Union membership in the private sector shamefully stands at 6-7%.
This is a searing condemnation of the ultra-conservative bureaucrats who dominate the trade unions in the US. But a revolt is coming against the scandalous conditions of American workers. There is bitter anger without which Kshama would not have won her spectacular victory in Seattle.
More Seattles are on the way, both in the US and worldwide.