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Solidarity, struggle, socialism
Toward a new direction for the labor movement
A Socialist Alternative pamphlet by Alan Jones

Part 3

The way forward

The Million Workers’ March has the potential to become a turning point in reviving the ideas of solidarity, struggle and socialism in the labor movement.

Again and again, the current leadership of the AFL-CIO have shown themselves incapable of defending the gains workers have made in wages, benefits and conditions. The ideas of business unionism, of concessions and "partnership" with the employers, and the alliance with the big-business Democratic Party have failed miserably and demonstrably to turn the situation around. The stark reality is that whoever gets elected, whether Bush or Kerry, their administration will preside over a deepening economic crisis and a renewed offensive by big business to make workers and their families pay for the war and the crisis of the capitalist system.

This means that there will be intensified struggles in the period that opens up. Increasingly, and on the basis of experience, workers will seek the ideas and program that is necessary to defeat the employers.

The program of the Million Workers March represents an excellent starting point for rebuilding a democratic fighting labor movement. MWM program includes demands for a national living wage; universal single payer health care; cancellation of all "free trade" agreements; massive funding for education; taxing the rich; protection of Social Security; guaranteed pensions; amnesty for undocumented workers; repeal of the anti-labor Taft Hartley and Patriot Acts; massive cuts in the military budget; and an immediate end to the US war and occupation in Iraq.

"The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the constitution of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party."

Frederick Engels (collaborator of Karl Marx) writing about the US in 1886.

To this program, it would be necessary to add the need to fight for a 32-hour work week without loss of pay in order to create millions of new jobs for displaced workers and young people who are entering the workforce. We should also campaign for a massive program of public works to improve education, build housing, an integrated mass transportation system, hospitals, and community and leisure facilities, paid for by taxes on the rich and big business. An important part of the program should be the demand for companies that declare themselves bankrupt and ask the workers for concessions (like most of the airline industry) or are found to be defrauding workers and consumers (like the insurance industry or ENRON and the oil companies), to be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control and management and be run for the benefit of society rather than the profits of a tiny unelected minority.

A significant issue that should be discussed in the labor movement, is the call to stop supporting the Democrats and to launch a campaign to run workers’ candidates -- as a first step towards building a mass workers’ party that can challenge the political monopoly of big business.

Union democracy

Inside the labor movement, we should campaign for all union officials to be on the same wage scale as the workers they represent. This will ensure that leaders understand the members’ concerns about wages and healthcare, much better than leaders with lifestyles that ape those of the bosses. The struggle for rank-and-file democracy and against bureaucratism and corruption will be one of the first steps to transform the unions into organizations that will fight for all workers.

A section of the dissident union leaders (like the New Unity Partnership) while talking about the need to "revolutionize" the AFL-CIO, organize etc., intend to try to make changes from the top down, without the participation of the rank and file. These "dissident" leaders are sitting comfortably on top of the trade union movement -- collecting huge salaries -- even as their members’ jobs disappear and wages and benefits decline. They are fundamentally no different from those leaders they seek to replace, in the sense that they see themselves as arbitrators between the workers and the bosses.

It should be remembered that it was mass militant strikes led by socialists, communists and radicals that led to victories in the 1930s and the birth of militant, industrial unionism. Those struggles were based on the confidence that a mobilized rank and file was capable of shutting down production. This perspective is needed to revitalize the union movement today. Non-union workers (60% of whom continue to tell pollsters that they would like to join a union!) would join the unions if they saw them building solidarity and fighting for the interests of all workers.

If the union movement is truly to be "revolutionized" a clear class line should be drawn between workers and their unions and the bosses and their government. The union movement should stand against compulsory arbitration and no-strike clauses, and campaign against the "team concept" that has threatened to transform unions into a disciplinary appendage of management on the shop floor.

As it has become painfully clear over the past two decades, the days when lasting reforms could be granted by the capitalist system, like the 1950s and 1960s, are over. US and world capitalism over the past twenty years has launched a vicious, unrelenting attack to take back all the gains and benefits workers made after World War II. Now the world capitalist crisis is deepening and mass unemployment, savage cuts in social spending, education and healthcare are in the order of the day. Wages have been stagnant or declining for a large majority of workers who made up for it by working longer hours and going into debt. These processes will intensify over the next period unless the labor movement and the working class in the US and internationally puts a stop to them.

Across the globe, we have seen significant struggles by workers and young people in recent years (which naturally receive almost no coverage in the American corporate media). These struggles include general strikes in Italy, Argentina, India, Spain, Greece, Ecuador, as well as the magnificent anti-war and anti-capitalist movements. In the new period that has opened up, world events are having a effect on the consciousness of thinking workers and young people in the US as they observe this international struggle against imperialism and capitalism unfold.

Challenging the system

Socialists argue that it is necessary to challenge the power of the rapacious capitalist system that inevitably creates poverty, racism, war and environmental destruction. It is necessary to bring the top 500 corporations in the US -- which control 75% of production -- under democratic workers’ control and management. It was precisely the understanding of the true nature of capitalism that enabled the socialist movement -- whether with Eugene Debbs and the Socialist Party in the early part of the 20th century or the radicalized union movement in the 1930s -- to prepare workers for the necessary battles against big business.

Farrell Dobbs, one of the socialist leaders of the Minneapolis Teamster Local 574 that led a general strike in 1934, explained what was written in the preamble of the by-laws adopted by the local:

"The working class whose life depends on the sale of labor, and the employing class who live upon the labor of others, confront each other in the industrial field contending for the wealth created by those who toil. The drive for profit dominates the bosses’ life. Low wages, long hours, the speed-up are weapons in the hands of the employer under the wage system. Striving always for a greater share of the wealth created by his labor, the worker must depend upon his organized strength...

"It is the natural right of all labor to own and enjoy the wealth created by it. Organized by industry and prepared for a grueling daily struggle is the only way in which lasting gains can be won by workers as a class. " (Teamster Rebellion)

These are the some of ideas that are needed more than ever in the debate that is opening up in the labor movement.

While the radicalization of sections of students and young people around the anti-war and anti-corporate movement is important, it is the working class and especially organized labor that can -- armed with the correct program and strategy -- turn the current situation around. This could be seen, (despite the misleadership at the top that derailed the struggle) in the strike of the grocery workers, which touched a raw nerve among broad sections of the working class in California. It clearly had the potential to galvanize millions of workers to defeat the employers and start a national movement to organize Wal-Mart and fight for national healthcare.

This potential can also be seen in the 100,000-strong demonstration of immigrant workers in New York as part of the Freedom Rides, and their determination to organize and fight for their rights. Likewise, over 20,000 union workers participated in the demonstration against the FTAA (Free Trade Area for the Americas Agreement) in Miami and stood up to police violence.

SEIU, AFSCME Against the War

"In June, the AFL-CIO's two biggest unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) met at their respective conventions.

Both passed resolutions clearly condemning the occupation of Iraq and calling for bringing the troops home.

SEIU, with 1.7 million members, took up the platform passed in October 2003 by the multi-union group US Labor Against the War. This platform calls for "A Just Foreign Policy based on International law and global justice... An end to the U.S. Occupation of Iraq; The Redirecting of the Nation's Resources from inflated military spending to meeting the needs of working families ...Supporting Our Troops and their families by bringing our troops home safely...Protecting Workers Rights, Civil Rights, Civil Liberties and the Rights of Immigrants... Solidarity with workers around the world...". The resolution was submitted by the union's International Executive Board and reportedly adopted unanimously by the nearly 4000 delegates.

At the AFSCME convention, representing 1.4 million members including many military veterans, three locals submitted resolutions. One attacked the principle and practice of pre-emptive war as "conquest and neo-colonizing an oil rich Arab nation... with the long-term aim of dominating and exploiting the petroleum industry," while the other resolutions called for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq "now."

The three were combined by the International leadership, using the language of the first but adding wording calling on President Bush to "bring our troops home as soon as possible." A number of delegates proposed an amendment to replace the phrase "as soon as possible" with "now."

In moving the amendment, this article's author pointed out how the corporate media has concealed the deaths of U.S. soldiers in contrast to Reagan's state funeral: "Where were the state funerals and the 21-gun salutes for the more than 800 of our working-class brothers and sisters in uniform who have died in Iraq -- for the profits of the arms industry, the oil industry, and the privateers who are feasting off the wreckage that US aggression has made of Iraq? And what are we supposed to say to the families of the thousands upon thousands of Iraqis killed in the last 15 months? The situation is getting worse, not better. Abu Ghraib only underlines the fact that no good can come of a continued US presence in Iraq."

The amendment was carried overwhelmingly. The SEIU and AFSCME resolutions clearly show the increasing anger among working-class people and trade unionists against Bush's war, and the potential for the working class to begin to take real action to hasten its end.

Steve Edwards,
President AFSCME Local 2858
Member, Chicago Labor Against the War

Published in Justice newspaper

Pessimists will point to the declining number of strikes and the weakness of the left inside the unions. While it is true that workers are more reluctant to take strike action because of the economic environment and the fear of unemployment, and strike level is at a historic low, the cascade of support for the MWM is an indication of the potential for action when a lead is given.

In New York over the past couple years, there have been several large demonstrations involving tens of thousands of workers including teachers, transit workers, firemen and other city workers fighting for decent contracts; homecare and day care workers went on strike demanding wage increases and better working conditions. Transit workers in Los Angeles organized a month-long strike in 2003. There were also successful strikes at Yale University in Connecticut and by sanitation workers in Chicago. In Milwaukee, Chicago and Seattle incumbent conservative Teamster leaderships have been ousted by rank-and-file reform slates.

On an international scale, the working class is starting to recover from the defeats and setbacks of the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the betrayal of the social democratic and reformist misleaders who implemented the policies of neoliberal capitalism. This will have a radicalizing effect among workers and young people in the US as well.

Today, hundreds of thousands of American workers are becoming radicalized by their involvement in the antiwar movement, mass demonstrations, community actions, and the struggle to fight the employers and transform their unions. The beginning of this process can be seen by the huge success of the books and films by Michael Moore. It points to the beginnings of the development of an anti-corporate and anti-capitalist consciousness among a broader section of the working class. (This is despite Moore’s support for right-wing hawk general Clark and John Kerry in the Democratic primaries. )

While understanding why tens of millions of working people will vote for Kerry to get rid of this reactionary administration, Socialist Alternative endorsed the anti-corporate and anti-war candidate Ralph Nader. Nader’s program contains a number of points that speak to the needs of American workers today including a $10 minimum wage, universal health care, an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and repeal of the Patriot Act.

The ferocity with which the Democratic Party and especially its liberal wing have attacked Nader demonstrates their fear of any alternative in American politics that seeks to break with the two-party system. They spent millions of dollars in a systematic effort to keep Nader off the ballot in a number of states and thus deny ordinary people in this country the democratic right to have a choice beyond the two main corporate parties.

We are certainly not uncritical of Nader and feel his program does not go nearly far enough in opposing the capitalist system which is at the root of the attacks that workers face today. Nevertheless, his candidacy this year - as in 2000 - provided a vehicle to express the desire of millions of people for a break from the rotten duopoly and the creation of a left-wing alternative in American politics. Earlier this year, Nader was receiving up to 7-8% in opinion polls and as much as 12% among young people -- another indication of the mood that exists under the surface.

Regardless of which party wins the election in November, the attacks on the working class, on poor people, on immigrants, on women and people of color will continue. But both of the capitalist parties are in a long-term crisis arising out of the fact that US capitalism is in serious decline and is facing a disaster in Iraq. The Democrats’ base is increasingly disenchanted -- the MWM is a proof of that. The political and class polarization is deepening and will create new opportunities to build a powerful movement against capitalism.

The forces present on the Million Worker March should be at the forefront of the drive challenge the official leadership of the AFL-CIO and start a serious campaign in every union and every local across the country to build the movement against war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction and start running candidates as a step toward a new political party which will truly represent the interests of workers and the oppressed in the US.

If you agree with these ideas, contact Socialist Alternative and join us in this struggle for a fighting and democratic labor movement that -- once again -- stands for the ideas of solidarity, struggle and socialism!