Unions Don’t Give You the Time of Day!

A vital and necessary point around which the class struggle has been fought throughout the history of capitalism is the reduction of the working day. May 1st, International Workers’ Day itself was established as part of the workers’ movement’s push for an 8 hour working day. This demand has by no means diminished over time. In 2022, rail workers in the US nearly went on strike over 24/7 on-call status. This year, home care workers in New York went on hunger strike to protest 24-hour working days, often back-to-back shifts in a single week. Around 40% of the workers in the industry are unionized under 1199 SEIU, a branch of the US’s second-largest union. The union’s response to the 24-hour shift? All is working as intended!

The homecare workers in New York, most being migrants hired through agencies, are forced into 24hr shifts, of which only 13 hours are paid as the rest are supposedly reserved for sleep and meals. However, this means little when the homecare workers’ patients typically demand constant attention and check-ins. The obvious result? Rampant insomnia and heinous physical degradation.

The overworked, underpaid homecare workers are told by both their bosses and their union that the 24hr shift must continue. The union, SEIU, has testified against the workers in an official hearing, claiming that the entire industry would collapse without them being worked to the bone. Instead, the union has claimed a great victory by winning a few minutes of pay out of the 11 unpaid hours of the shift! This stance is just another example of how unions have become tools of the state, bound legally and institutionally to the oppression of the working class.

Despite unions’ posturing that they have the workers’ best interests in mind, the true role of unions is to negotiate the sale of labor-power on behalf of the capitalists. Any promises given to workers of improved working conditions are almost always a farce. Capitalism is in a period of deep crisis, and the unions’ role, if they are to remain legally recognized, is to enforce the losses of capital onto the workers. Negotiations take place in the place of strikes, as a strike would inhibit the functioning of the workplace or industry. Strikes themselves have been converted into a bargaining tool instead of a means of struggle. Workers are expected to be grateful for any measly rise in wages or improvement in working conditions, despite these “gains” most often being in effect a loss compared to inflation. This does not only sabotage the real defensive demands of our class; it simultaneously takes the struggle out of its hands and divides it sectorally.

The state of the homecare workers is only one example of a wider, international assault on workers unleashed by the capitalist crisis. The working day has extended through means like gig work, work itself has sped up, rent and evictions have skyrocketed, and inflated prices have sapped away at real wages. In face of a serious decline of profitability, the capitalists are making the working class pay for an economic system bound by massive contradictions. The permanent, legally recognized bodies for negotiating wages, A.K.A. unions are therefore compelled to enforce these worsening conditions on workers. Something other than a “unionize and pray” approach must be done.

The working class can rely on neither the popular reformers of electoral politics, nor the pragmatic negotiators of the union sphere, to achieve its goals. The struggle must be taken into the hands of the workers themselves through their real self-organization outside of the union. Whether it takes the form of independent strike committees or mass assemblies, a self-organized struggle would allow for us to struggle as a single class, not bound by legalities or by trade. If workers are attacked as a class, it’s necessary that it fights back as one.

The struggle for the reduction of the working day or higher wages must be linked to the overall political struggle against the wage system itself. This struggle demands a revolutionary class party that fights to connect the immediate struggle to the ultimate aim of abolishing capitalism. Through the working class’ forceful seizure of power from the capitalists, a new system of production based on human need (and with plenty of free time!) rather than accumulation and profit, can emerge.

Internationalist Workers' Group
Friday, May 3, 2024