Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The renewal of the class struggle

The long-term decline in union membership is certainly not good news. The need for unions is greater than it’s ever been. Workers are better off being union members than not, if for no other reason than union workers enjoy a clear wage advantage ($200 more per week on average) relative to their non-union counterparts. Considering the fact that the bottom 60% of American workers have seen their wages stagnate over the last 30 years, that’s no small matter. Most labor proponents will agree that as the proportion of union members rises, the collective bargaining power of workers increases. The inverse is also true—when density falls, labor's power declines.

 Despite our labor movement’s long-term erosion, there are still 14.4 million union members in the U.S. French unions have repeatedly demonstrated their ability in recent years to mobilize millions of workers (union and non-union alike) in working class struggles. To be sure, they don’t always win. The U.S. at over 10% is  higher than union density in France, where it’s about 8% of the workforce and in the U.S. many unions still command prodigious financial resources and employ a small army of organizers, researchers, lawyers, and other highly skilled staff. Despite labor’s long decline, there are still tens of millions of union members in the US, many of whom are located in strategic positions in the political economy. .

United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard  got to the heart of the matter:  " I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,”

The militancy of workers has been channeled towards ‘productivism’ – increasing the economic pie and enlarging the individual's consumption of its slice.

 If only 5% of U.S. unionists acquired a class consiousness and long-term vision for a new type of society, there would be 750,000 political activists. The fundamental contradiction of unions in a capitalist society is that they are fundamentally sectional organizations. Unions emerged out of the working class but they are not class organizations. They bring together sections of workers with a common work-place or trade who look to the union to represent their particular interests. Class war against workers demands a class response. Unionism, even when militant, was no match for the employers and the state attacks. Unions can’t become revolutionary organizations unless they develop a class sensibility in their strategies and practices. The goal is to build the working class as a social force. We have to build up an army for class war.

There's a million ways that you can take labor power and bargain. There's a million ways that you can think of actually saying to the rank and file membership, what else is going on in your life? What else matters to you? What's happening to the workers around them, and what's happening to the workers that you seek to organize, and what's happening to all of their families? Marx talked a lot about how workers in a big industrial setting would learn about their own oppression. But it's not just the workplace.

The iconic large factory that seemed so vulnerable to unionization is less and less common. Most employees now work in isolated small units like retail stores and fast food outlets, or social services. It means organizing workers, not the job, providing union membership to individuals even if there is no collective bargaining relationship.  Or the catalyst could be a your neighbourhood.  We can help deepen people's understanding of what's wrong with the system that we're living under is by extending the education cycle so that they understand it isn't just their boss who is making them miserable at work, it's how their boss is connected to the local town government, and how city-hall is also destroying their life in their neighborhood. The best way to do that is for the union itself to help carry the workers into both fights. Workers’ centers can be a potential focus of labor renewal. The experiences and skills they develop could contribute to the building of a working class that can do more than just hope to hold back the tide. Local and regional workers' assemblies or open forums can be created, facilitating and linking these workplace groups across workplaces and other dimensions of workers’ lives, supporting workplace activists in bringing a class perspective that combines with the socialist ideological perspective which challenges the logic of capitalism itself They would be about making socialists and fostering a socialist culture through actual daily experience and struggle. How do we unite in a way where we keep the diversity of multiple movements but still work together in solidarity?  The answer is a common vision.

For socialists it is largely the question of whether we can begin engaging the union movement, the social movements, and radicals in challenging capitalism. We have to be able to argue that capitalism is bad even when its working well, that capitalism is now a barrier to human development.  We need to recognize that we're fighting capitalism. What socialists have to offer is making connections between people across workplaces, bringing in a class analysis so they seem it’s not just them. They can never win if it’s just a few of them against the state. They have to see there’s actually a class involved here. Giving them some alternatives, giving them some historical memory, so they see how workers did this—in fact in more difficult circumstances in the past. Giving them some comparative analysis of what’s going on in Greece and elsewhere—how did people organize. So that we can play a role in terms of bringing a class perspective, resources, memory into the picture. It is to be a bridge—responding to practical and immediate things, but putting them in that kind of a larger context. Because without that kind of larger context we’re losing and we’re going to continue to lose. What’s really abstract is pretending that these kinds of questions don’t matter.

Unions are still important defensive institutions but we have to go beyond their sectionalism where they represent their members or they represent workers at a particular company when people are voting on the basis of “does this help me in particular, even if it screws other workers?,” with no sense of if you’re screwing other workers how that might come back to bite you in the longer term. We should be talking bout a new type of trade unionism,  a much broader class organization. Those who are trying to defend unions by saying “they’re okay, don’t attack them, just carry on ” are actually doing the unions any favor. There’s a perception in the broad public that unions are mostly interested in themselves. It seems that the union leadership thinks it has a product to sell. That product is a contract and certain privileges in wages and benefits. That seems to foster a perception among the broad public that unions just don’t care about the working class as a whole.  It means they have to develop a class perspective and  be driven by that class perspective. A new form of working-class organization, that would see workers as joining them, linking them across unions. Having networks of activists across unions, so it isn’t just a union with a sectional interest, but it’s workers joining something because they see it as a class interest, and that it also expresses all the other dimensions of their lives. So it’s linked to the community as an organisation facing more than a particular employer. That would a revolution inside unions—a massive cultural change.

Unions didn’t come out of people sitting down and practically saying, “what are the rules, what are the constraints, and how do we operate within them?” They figured out how you actually have to break rules, how you have to change them, how you have to mobilize broadly. If you accept the status quo you’re sending a signal to the master class that they can keep doing it to you.

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