the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Dec 12, 1998
The following article was based on excerpts from “The Capitalists Try to Create Divisions; the Workers’ Strength Is in their Unity”, appearing in the January 1999 edition of our Class Struggle (#22).
In 1979, the U.S. economy was in a severe downturn and auto company profits were tumbling. Chrysler painted a dire picture: it said its plants were old and unproductive, it couldn’t compete with the Japanese imports, which were beginning to “flood the U.S. market,” nor with Ford and GM, which were bigger than it was. Chrysler claimed to be “hemorrhaging money.” Saying that something must be done immediately to stanch its losses, Chrysler threatened to close all its plants and throw 130,000 employees, unionized and salaried, out in the street.
The politicians rushed to come up with money—but on one condition: the “taxpayers” couldn’t be expected to carry the whole load. In the middle of a severe recession, everyone needed to sacrifice to bail out Chrysler. Their conclusion? Workers must give up concessions. So decreed the leaders of both parties.
The media bombarded the workers with news about the worsening economy. Some workers were still on layoff from the 1974—75 recession when a new, deeper round of layoffs began.
Not only did UAW leaders not contest the bosses’ argument, they strongly reinforced it, arguing that the workers’ very jobs depended on making enough sacrifices to bail out Chrysler, which otherwise couldn’t compete with its rivals.
Everyone—Chrysler, its banks, the politicians, the media and UAW leaders—conspired to make it seem that Chrysler workers had no choice but to step back, to let their standard of living go down.
The first concessions the workers gave back were their automatic annual wage increases and cost-of-living protection, plus two weeks of “personal holidays” they had only recently won. UAW officials sold those concessions by arguing that when Chrysler was able to stand on its own feet again, the workers would see their sacrifices repaid. Chrysler, they said, was in a very unusual situation, and only a temporary one.
But it wasn’t temporary. It wasn’t only Chrysler. And it soon proved to be very usual.
From its very beginnings, capitalism has been marked by competition. The capitalist marketplace has always been marked by rivalry, by commercial wars (not to mention shooting wars, as national states sent out their armies to defend the position of their own capitalists vis-a-vis those from other countries). Facing this competition, pushing to improve profits, the capitalists used whatever divisions they could find or create, forcing the workers to accept the most miserable conditions and impoverishment.
English capitalism played on the desperate situation it had created in 19th century Ireland to import Irish workers and use them as scabs against the English workers. When male workers found the way to resist, the capitalists threw them out, replacing them with women and children—who had no choice but to work at lower wages.
Not only did U.S. capitalism develop on the wealth that the slave trade and slavery produced, it made use of the divisions that slavery engendered among the laboring masses to increase its wealth, and those divisions did not go away with the legal end of slavery. U.S. capitalism further benefitted from the different waves of immigration which created an almost unlimited number of divisions within the working class.
The pressures which threw workers into competition with each other have always been one of the major problems facing the working class movement. Workers’ organizations, starting with the unions, came into being to overcome the divisions which capitalism engendered among the workers. They can have no possibilities today if their policies do not rest on engaging the widest struggle possible.
The first demand for concessions at Chrysler was quickly taken up by other companies. What Chrysler got, Ford and GM lined up to get, in turn. And what Ford, and then GM took from their workers, brought Chrysler back—still pretending to be on the verge of bankruptcy—to demand still more concessions. Each time, the UAW reinforced the idea that workers could not protect their own jobs, unless they helped “their company”—Chrysler or Ford or GM—improve its bottom line.
This drive for concessions spilled out to other industries, as other companies entered into competition with the auto industry. It was not a competition for sales, nor for territory; it was a competition to see which company could most improve its own standing in the capital markets by cutting its labor costs the fastest. It was a competition to see which company and which industry could bring its own workers to give up more than did the others.
While the companies were carrying out a war for profits, a war they were waging not only against each other, but above all against their own workers, the unions reinforced the sense that nothing could be done, other than to bail out “their own” company.
It was a view that militated against any mobilization of the workers. The number of strikes began to tumble. In 1973, there had been 435 major strikes; by 1982, the number had fallen to 98; in 2022, the total number of strikes was only 23.
Chrysler and the rest of the auto industry have long since come back to health—if they ever were sick. But the so-called “temporary” wage and benefit sacrifices continued on as part of every contract since. Jobs continued to be cut, whether times were bad ... or good. Despite what the union apparatus promised, not only did workers not regain what they had given up, in one way or another they continued to cede more to the bosses.
In 1978, hourly employment at the “Big 3” was about 760,000. By 1996, eighteen years later, the number of jobs had been cut almost in half, down to 390,000. By 2022, hourly employment at the three “American” companies was 145,000, cut again, this time to less than half of what it had been 26 years before.
Nonetheless, right up to the Covid disruptions, the Big Three auto companies continued to put out more vehicles domestically than they had in the previous periods. The so-called “competition” between the three companies has served them well. By 2022, their profits were at levels never before seen.
As difficult as the objective situation sometimes has been, it was never objective difficulties that blocked the workers from taking action in their own interests. It was the union’s policies. Of course, the union might not always have been able to avoid a retreat. But, at the very least, union leaders could have opposed the propaganda the bosses pushed inside the working class. They did not.
All through the nearly four-decade period of concessions, UAW leaders pushed the workers to cooperate with the companies, to view themselves as “partners” with the companies. Union buildings are emblazoned with slogans proclaiming the partnership: GM-UAW Legal Services; UAW-Chrysler Training Center. And Ford’s big cargo trucks carry the Ford-UAW logo. These partnerships between company and workers benefitted only the company. And they conveyed the idea that workers were in competition with workers from other companies.
Already, at the time of the First International, Karl Marx had discussed the divisions that capitalism directly or indirectly introduces into the workers’ movement. Writing in 1866, he explained:
“The only social power of the workmen is their number. The force of numbers, however, is broken by disunion. The disunion of the workmen is created and perpetuated by their unavoidable competition amongst themselves. Trades’ Unions originally sprung up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves....
“Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, the [unions] cannot fail to enlist the non-union men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural laborers, rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”
The main strength of the workers has always been their unity as a class. Up to the point that capitalism is destroyed, the working class movement will continue to come up against the attempt of the capitalists to create disunity inside and even decomposition of the workers’ movement. To fight against the disunity which capitalism brings is the main, and never ending fight of the conscious working class movement. It is this the unions did not do.
The unions neither considered themselves nor acted as “champions and representatives of the whole working class”—to use Marx’s words. And not only did they not enlist the unorganized parts of the working class in their ranks, they couldn’t even keep their own ranks together. Only 6% of all workers in private industry are in unions today, compared to 34% in 1954, the unions’ high point. This decline is in great measure the result of the unions’ believing they could defend the interests of their own members, without defending those of the whole class.
The role of the conscious working class movement is to fight against the fatalistic acceptance of the bosses’ position inside the working class, and first of all against the idea that one part of the working class can benefit while another part of the working class does not, or even falls backwards.
The working class movement has to come back to what Marx and Engels fought for when they helped build the First International: a policy which starts from trying to defend the interests of the whole working class, that is, to the ideas of the class struggle. Only if the organized workers’ movement once again tries to take this path can it really defend any part of the working class.
Of course, a fight today may well start in one industry, or even one company, but its possibility of success rests on whether there are enough people who take upon themselves the goal to spread it, that is, to rest on the strength of the working class.