“Across the Middle East, poor and working class people are voicing outrage at systems they view as rigged. Protests erupted in cities across Iran starting in late December, triggered at least in part by a proposed budget that included cuts in a popular cash assistance program. Morocco was roiled by protests last year after the death of a fishmonger who was crushed by a trash compactor while trying to retrieve swordfish that had been confiscated and discarded by police.” (Wall St. Journal, 1/24/2018)
Are we turning the corner?
These protests come after the protests in Iran. Those protests were also sparked by similar economic attacks on workers, and in that case a series of worker organizations have expressed support for them. One group, the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane complex workers have also threatened to take over their plant if their demands aren’t met.
US: Women’s March
Here in the US, hundreds of thousands came out on January 20 to mark the first anniversary of the Trump administration and to demonstrate for women’s rights – a reported 200,000 in New York City, 600,000 in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago and tens of thousands elsewhere. The overwhelming thrust of the protests may have been for electing Democrats (once again), but who said that a new movement has to emerge with complete clarity at its birth? Let’s not forget that even the Russian Revolution started with a peasant march on the Russian tsar begging the “Little Father” to intervene on their behalf.
A review of the last few decades shows the following trends:
- In the late 1990s and first year-and-a-half of the new century, there was an increasing movement against neoliberal policies. This movement focused on the World Trade Organization and originated among the youth, but in the last few years increasing numbers of workers were drawn into it.
- 9/11/2001 brought this to a screeching halt and there followed a period of reaction not only in the US but globally. This included not only invasions and war, but also unrelenting attacks on the working class and their organizations, especially the unions.
- The economic crisis, which started in 2007-08, seems to have shaken things up once again. Shortly following that crisis, we had the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement in the US, a renewed movement of the miners and also agricultural workers in South Africa, a massive strike wave in China, and the election of Syriza in Greece (2015).
- None of these movements clearly found a way forward, and some – such as the
Syrian revolution – were outright defeated, at least for now. This led to a period of division and reaction. This period was marked by the rise of far right, racist chauvinist parties throughout Europe, the Brexit vote in Britain, the election of Trump in the US, and the rise of Islamic sectarianism and division. One of the most disastrous of these has been the assault on the Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma).
So the question is whether a new wave of the movement against capitalism is now starting. Has the period of reaction run its course? And if so, what direction will this new wave take?
Boot and Shoe workers
One small and little noted event on January 20 in the US was the group of workers – mainly women workers – who walked out on their jobs at the Boot and Shoe Restaurant in Oakland. They were protesting against their boss, Charlie Hallowell, who is a serial sexual abuser. They may have been the first, but it’s unlikely they will be the last. Will this lead to a new wave of worker organizing in the US? If so, what role will the largely diminished establishment unions play? Normally, you could expect the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) to take an extreme interest in such events. But this union has more or less officially abandoned such restaurant workers as those at Boot and Shoe, and no other union seems to have stepped into this void. Given the economic disaster for the younger generation in the US, hundreds of thousands of this generation are unlikely to escape jobs like those at Boot and Shoe, meaning they will be driven in the direction of organizing as workers. What form will that take?
There is another issue: The Syriza leadership in Greece capitulated after it followed a national strategy – thinking it could pressure international capital based on a movement of Greek workers alone. In the Middle East, youth, workers and others revolted in one country after another in the Arab Spring, but these revolts weren’t coordinated together. Just two years after the start of the Arab Spring, Turkey was rocked by the Gezi Park protests, and now we have the protests in Iran. Both the Iranian and the Turkish regimes have played a decisively counter-revolutionary role in Syria. But there was not a systematic attempt to link up these movements.
So, another question is: If a new movement is rising, how, to what extent, will there be a drive to make them international?
In Britain, we saw the reactionary, nationalist and chauvinist Brexit vote and now the Tory Party is negotiating to leave the European Union. The working class answer to this would be to organize a campaign for a European-wide minimum wage and minimum social services (such as unemployment insurance and health care).
These are some things to consider as the period of reaction and division comes to an end and a new wave of working class struggle is born. We hope.