Today, on International Workers Day, and in the days that follow, we should assess the state of affairs within our class. We do ourselves and our class no favors by dressing this up, by denying what is. That is the only way to move forward. Here in the United States, the working class is in crisis.
“Striketober” and its results
Last October, there was an upsurge in strikes. Some of the major ones were the Nabisco strike, the Kellogg’s strike, and the John Deere strike.
One that hardly got noticed at all was the strike of carpenters in northwest Washington State, but it really epitomized what was happening in the labor movement as a whole. I was there. I was involved and I covered the strike closely. Carpenters there voted down contract proposals from their leadership four times. These rejections forced the leadership to call the most phony strike imaginable, with just a few pickets called at just a few sites including, for example, one picket at an empty construction yard. On the fifth vote, the contract “passed” – by an actual fraudulent count. A huge number of “votes” came from just one or two computers! (The proven fraud in this case shows the impossibility of frauding a vote count without being caught.)
Other strikes saw the same thing. Strikers at John Deere also rejected several contract proposals from the union leadership. It seemed there could have been a moment in which a cross-union opposition could have been organized, but that didn’t happen unfortunately.
The political repercussions were predictable. Among Seattle carpenters, support for Trump was high, and many of these Trump supporters were strike leaders. During the few weeks of the class struggle – which included a struggle against the union leadership who represent the contractors inside the union – during this time, the reactionary ideas tended to be pushed to the
side. These same carpenters cheered calls for solidarity with people of color. One extreme right winger expressed support for and shook the hand of open socialist and person of color city council member Kshama Sawant.
But it soon became apparent that the struggle-on-two-fronts – one against the employers and another against the union leadership – was going to be extremely difficult and would involve some serious risks (possible lawsuits, etc.) Nor was there a larger movement of workers rushing to the Seattle area carpenters’ defense. So many of the leaders pulled back and the union leadership ultimately had their way. There is still a lot of fallout, partly because of the proven fraud in the vote count, but the level of activism has died down. The result is that it seems all the old reactionary ideas seem to be returning to prominence.
The longer term process
The class struggle drove those ideas back; the defeat enabled the return of those ideas. That is exactly the process over the longer term here in the United States. In the 1970s, the post war boom ended and the capitalists went onto the offensive. A series of often bitter defensive
strikes resulted. These continued on into the 1980s, but Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers strike was a key moment. In all of these, the union leadership refused to mount a real, fighting strategy. In a few cases, such as the Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota, workers took it upon themselves to try to physically prevent scabs from going to work. But alone, without a wider mobilization, they could not succeed.
Just as in the individual case of the Seattle area carpenters, the series of defeated strikes lasting for nearly a decade had a huge impact on the consciousness, the thinking, of the US working class. It started to turn away from the class struggle.
But the class struggle did not turn away from the workers. If anything, the attacks on the US working class intensified. This was facilitated by the further globalization of the economy. That process enabled the capitalists to intensify the competition between workers around the world for who would work for less and who would allow reduced environmental regulations and lower taxes on the capitalists. Republican and Democratic administrations alike encouraged this under the mantra of “free trade”. This included both the Bush presidencies as well as the (Bill) Clinton and Obama presidencies. Twelve years of Republicans and sixteen years of Democrats.
Anger, frustration and confusion mounted. Just as the defeat of the Seattle carpenters led to a return of reactionary ideas in individuals, as the anger and confusion mounted within the US working class, some of the most reactionary traditions of US culture tended to become strengthened. This includes bigotry and anti-intellectualism. These have always been part of US culture, but at times of intense battle they tended to recede. Now, they became strengthened.
This is the explanation for the support for Trump among US workers, especially but not only white workers. Some deny that such support exists to any significant degree. That is wishful thinking. Even the top union leaders admit it, and the statistics show it too. (See the graphs.)
Fragmentation of the capitalist class
Meanwhile, the capitalist class is also in crisis. Emboldened by the weakening of the working class, and driven by the decline in the rate of profit for production (vs. speculation), some of
them think there is no limit to how far they can go. Examples are Michael, the “Pillow Guy”, Lindell, Silicon Valley adventure capitalist Peter Thiel, and the capitalist that everybody loves to hate, Elon Musk. These are the Trump supporters.
But Trump does not represent the majority of the US capitalist class. In fact, he represents the extreme political weakness of that class, which has lost its ability to influence tens of millions of US workers. As Oaklandsocialist has explained many of Trump’s policies – especially his foreign policies – were strongly opposed by the majority of the US capitalist class, but they could only just barely and only partially control him. This especially included Trump’s attacks on NATO.
In past times, the cohesion and strength of the working class combined with the strength of US capitalism to help bind the capitalist class together. Now the US capitalist class is tending to fragment.
We are seeing the beginnings of the “lumpenization” of the capitalist class! The result is that a huge vacuum is opening up in US society.
The United States is not alone. Russia, for example, represents this process on steroids. If Stalin’s absolute crushing of the Russian working class was not enough, the return to capitalism and the mad scramble among a horde of ex-bureaucrats turned oligarchs and the impoverishment of the masses of Russia under capitalism drove it even further. In Russia, a capitalist class bound together as a class hardly even exists. There are just the individual oligarchs all beholden to Putin. If in the United States figures like Trump and DeSantis are somewhat out of control of the capitalist class, in Russia Putin is the state and that state dominates the oligarchs rather than vice versa. Any oligarch who threatens Putin risks finding himself in prison for tax fraud (Mikhail Khodorovsky or Platon Lebedev) or having “fallen out of a window” or “committed suicide”.
Break in situation
Where, how can a break in this situation develop?
There has been the huge struggles in France https://oaklandsocialist.com/2023/03/27/france-may-1968-march-2023/ over raising the age of retirement to 64.Will that spread beyond France? Will a new, fighting political party of the working class develop out of it?
Then there is Ukraine and the coming offensive. If it fully succeeds, if the Russian army collapses and Ukraine regains all its lost territory, will the amazing courage and determination of the Ukrainian people be translated into the class struggle? And what role can the left play in a new Ukraine? Today, those forces are very small, but at the least they are not tainted by all the garbage that most of the left is spewing in Europe and the US, the apologies for the fascist-connected Putin.
And how about in the United States? For one thing, there is the major cultural change that has come about among young people, including many young workers, especially young women workers. Who knows when and how they might lead a major rebellion against the cultural, racial, sexual and gender repression? We seem to be reaching a fever pitch of random murders. We also have potential environmental disasters killing thousands. Finally, what will happen if the MAGA Republican Party tries to overturn the next presidential election as we have outlined? Especially among black women, resistance to MAGAism is quite strong. Could they lead a sector of the US working class into action?
On this May Day, and in the days, weeks and months that follow, socialists and working class fighters should neither shrink from an honest assessment of the difficulties we face nor allow that to blind us from seeing the struggles that might be right around the corner.