USA: Renewal of Workers' Initiative is Real

The working class stirs back into action the world over. In China, factory workers’ resist their confinement in dormitories by employers, while workers push back in France against pension reforms. More recently in the US, labor actions in the logistical, automotive, and media sectors of the economy all attest to a new phase of the class struggle. This is characterized by an explosion in the number of workers’ mobilizations, distinct from the last phase that began with the pandemic, whose hallmark was the asphyxiation of workers’ struggles under the auspices of “public health”. As yet, the offices of the state have confined the revival of workers’ initiative to the corporatist “pens”, that dismember workers’ mobilizations via “rotation” strikes; strike calendars that alert bosses to mobilizations in advance; and “water-tight” seals between workers in different sectors and job-sites. It has also succeeded in channeling workers’ resistance towards the defense of capitalism and its institutions. In short, workers are beginning to fight back, after experiencing a general decline of their living conditions, but their struggles are funneled back into the union framework, which is not only impotent to end their exploitation by capitalists but ensures their defeat in the class struggle by dividing them into industries, crafts, and specializations, as well as union/non-union.

In 2020, as the crisis of capitalism became apparent, it brought with it the subsequent revival of workers’ combativity. Capitalism’s recurrent crises are part of a cycle in which capital is accumulated—as, in fact, competition demands it must be—beyond capitalists’ ability to maintain and expand it. The contradiction between inflated capital values and actual profits results in a contraction of profits for individual capitalists and produces a crisis in the whole economy. The subsequent disappearance of profitable investment opportunities within the productive sphere causes investment capital to flow into finance, instead. Indeed, financial profits make up an increasingly greater share of the income generated in the US, and this amount only continues to increase year after year. It is what today allows the high priests of capitalism to attribute the current crisis of capitalism to the financial uncertainty introduced by COVID-19, enabling states to weaponize the very real pandemic threat to justify the repression of workers’ struggles on absurd legalistic grounds, while simultaneously decreeing stay-at-work orders that sent workers to be killed by the virus, on pain of hunger, in order to protect some capitalists’ profits.

The Russo-Ukrainian War signaled an escalation of competition between states (imperialism), and consequently a deeper descent into barbarism for humanity. Attacks on workers’ quality of life—aimed at increasing capitalist profits by reducing our income share in the economy—have been intensified as they start to be determined by the needs of capitalist rearmament. Tragically for workers, these needs now coincide with central banks’ efforts to lower wages and raise unemployment in the name of curbing inflation, to meet the profit (and hence tax income) needs of a state preparing for generalized war. In short, governments attack the living standards of the workers at home with repression and austerity policies that gut social spending, justifying their assaults in the name of so-called “national defense”, which has always been the defense of the bosses’ political and economic regime, while they attack our working-class brothers and sisters in other countries with bullets and bombs! Experiencing such constant attacks on their living conditions, workers can only respond as they have so far: through class struggle.

But this revival in workers’ combativity is quickly coming up against the institutions of the system, whose function in this situation is to prevent open class struggle from breaking out. In France, the struggle was subordinated to the unions and “socialist” parties, who channeled workers’ energies and frustrations into “rotation” strikes and impotent “citizens’ demonstrations” that accomplished nothing except to shore up support for capitalism and its organizations. The unions and “socialist” parties’ domination over workers’ struggles has had the effect, moreover, of disorienting workers ideologically by linking them to political programs for the revitalization of state capitalism. Their goal, besides power and the privileges it affords, is to help carry out capitalist rearmament under a “socialist” banner by branding initiatives that contribute to it, such as the nationalization of industries, as “socialist” or even revolutionary.

In the US, “reformer” union functionaries attempt to seize the opening that the current movement has presented them. They win union elections on the promise to be more combative and less compromising against the bosses. But the reformers’ actions undermine their great promises. They advance a rancid union framework of pseudo-struggle that: a) routinizes workers’ struggle to incorporate it into the management structure of capitalist exploitation, and b) paves the way, by securing labor peace, for capitalist rearmament. The strikes at Hunts Point Produce Market in 2021 and the Chevron Richmond refinery in 2022—where the contract brokered by the Biden administration, responding to the start of the Russo-Ukrainian War, was voted down—reveal the dynamic of this latest phase of the class struggle.

The revival of workers’ combativity is a real phenomenon, but workers remain in the grip of capitalist institutions and limited to capitalist political horizons. This situation cannot be attributed solely to state and union efforts to sabotage workers’ independent initiatives, at least entirely. Rather, the failure of these recent struggles in the US to go beyond the dimensions of legal, union-sanctioned action results from the absence of an alternative perspective within the movement. As capitalism’s crisis worsens, more workers will be drawn to struggles, which will expand, becoming more frequent and forceful. Here, it is critical workers stand firm in their fighting and attempt to link the struggle for economic demands to the opposition to rearmament for capitalist wars in which working people will pay the entire balance.

The above article is taken from the upcoming edition of Internationalist Notes (#6 Fall 2023), bulletin of the Internationalist Workers’ Group.

Thursday, November 9, 2023