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
Nov 30, 1985
Today the working class finds itself in a period of setbacks. Having lasted now for almost 10 years, throughout the economic crisis, this is not a new period. But, with the last several years of attacks by the bourgeoisie in the form of concessionary contracts, layoffs and cuts in social spending, the setback is worse. The workers have seen big cuts in their standard of living and quality of worklife. The 1984 wage agreements reflect this: for the fifth year in a row, wage increases were smaller than the year before. Settlements for the first half of 1985 averaged only 2.9 per cent for the life of the contract. This is below the inflation rate which in the next few years is predicted to be 3.5 to 4.5 per cent. And the overall average hides the depth of the cuts. In 1984, almost two-fifths of all contracts carried less than a 1.4 per cent increase over the life of the contract; one-fifth had no wage change at all; and almost one-tenth had decreases. In addition, lump sum payments often replaced wage increases, and were not figured into benefit costs. Two hundred thousand workers in 1984 were the victims of two-tier wage scales. This trend has been followed so far in the 1985 contracts. Increasingly, workers have been forced to pay a bigger share of their health costs; seen their pensions reduced, jobs combined, and speed-up increased; faced tougher absenteeism restrictions; and seen a loss of health and safety protections on the job.
Throughout this period, there has been no significant reaction from the workers. Instead there seems to be a deep sense of demoralization – a feeling that there is nothing to be done but accept these attacks. That pessimism can be seen in the strike statistics of the last 6 years, which show a decline in strike activity at workplaces of 1,000 or more as compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1979 there were 235 strikes; in 1980, 187; in 1981, 145; in 1982, 96; in 1983, 81; in 1984, 62; and in the first 7 months of 1985, 25. There has also been a general decline in the number of workers involved in these strikes; 1979 was the last year to see over a million strikers and over 20 million strike days lost. If the workers feel it is difficult, if not impossible, to fight back today, it’s due primarily to this feeling that the crisis doesn’t allow them any hope, that the fall in production doesn’t permit them to get higher wages, that with the higher unemployment the workers who are still working find themselves happy that they still have a job. But it is due also partly to the series of defeats met by that section of the working class that did attempt to fight. Many workers still use PATCO as a reference point to show the impossibility of winning, and the serious risks involved in fighting at all. But PATCO is not the only example. There was Greyhound, Phelps-Dodge, the United pilots, A-P Parts, to name just a few of the better known strikes that ended in either major concessions or total defeat.
Among the most militant workers, both those who are union activists and those who are outside the unions, the question is raised today whether it is possible to fight, especially when those militants are confronted with the generalized sentiment in the working class that nothing can be done.
Even in this general framework of demoralization, there have nonetheless been a series of strikes showing that some workers still are ready to try too make a fight. And this gives an answer to these questions. At Bath Iron Works, last spring, the approximately 300 clerks and 4500 shipyard workers struck when the company demanded wage cuts, benefit reductions, and the imposition of a two-tier wage scale. The Bath clerks were out for 22 weeks, and the shipyard workers, 14. In July, 8200 steelworkers from Wheeling-Pittsburgh struck for 14 weeks when the company tore up the contract and proposed cuts of from $21.40 an hour to $15.20 an hour in wages and benefits. At General Dynamics Land Systems Division, there was an 8-week strike by 4600 UAW members against two-tier and for parity with auto. In Chicago, at the Tribune, 800 printers have been out 5 months, since July, against concessions. In August, 1500 members of Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers went out on strike against Hormel, which had slashed wages in October of 1984 from $10.69 an hour to $8.25 an hour and refused to bring them back up. This strike is now in its third month.
These strikes have shown an aggressive character, a higher level of participation, and an enthusiasm and determination on the part of the workers. At Bath, when a company spokesperson threatened the workers that they would still be out at Thanksgiving, the workers responded by quickly holding a Thanksgiving dinner on the line, with the spokesperson as the turkey. At Wheeling-Pitt, hundreds of workers mobilized to stop the company from removing parts, and they also held rallies with thousands of workers near the plants. The General Dynamics workers at Lima, Ohio, tired of having the UAW International try to ram a contract down their throats that they had already rejected several times, went out on a wildcat strike which helped to force the UAW to make the strike official. General Dynamics workers at Warren put nails and other similar objects on the road to stop cars. The Tribune strikers and their wives have postered and leafleted around the city asking for a boycott of the Tribune. And the P-9 workers have been picketing and holding rallies at the banks that are Hormel’s main stockowners. Clearly at least some of the workers have not accepted simply to stay home, or picket a few hours, but have engaged themselves actively in the strike.
In spite of this militancy by the workers, these strikes ended in defeats. At Bath, the clerical workers took a wage and benefit freeze, and the shipyard workers took a wage and benefit freeze, plus two-tier. At Wheeling-Pitt, the workers took a 16 per cent an hour cut in wages and benefits. At General Dynamics, the workers kept two-tier, and a wage and benefit package that still leaves them $1.50 an hour behind Chrysler.
In a period of generalized setbacks for the working class, it is very difficult, for a small group of workers to win. And in these fights, a relatively small number of isolated workers confronted a much more unified ruling class.
In a period of economic crisis, the bosses have more possibilities. They don’t fear the stoppage of production in the same way. At Bath, for example, the strike came at a slow period when the company would have been forced to lay workers off otherwise. At Wheeling-Pitt, it came when the company was in the process of declaring bankruptcy. At General Dynamics, the strikers were facing a company which has a monopoly on tank production. In all these cases, a long strike is a much greater hardship on the workers than on the bosses.
In a period of high unemployment, it is more difficult to have help from other workers, and much easier to have scabs willing to take jobs. The Tribune has been able to print its paper all during the strike. In addition, while it is difficult for the workers to find support, the bosses have all the usual help of the state: arrest warrants were taken out against some of the Bath strikers; General Dynamics workers were arrested and injunctions limiting picketing to a handful at each gate were ordered; Wheeling-Pitt cut off pensions and medical benefits, and went to court to try to block workers from being able to get unemployment compensation. The NLRB conspired with Hormel to try to stop the workers from picketing the banks.
But the difficulty of the situation was not the only problem. The strikes were defeated due in part also to the way various union leaderships engaged and led these struggles. These strikes remained within the corporatist limits long accepted by the unions. For example, the UAW left its salaried workers working all during the strike at General Dynamics, since they had already ratified their contract. The IAM forced a contract down the throats of the General Dynamics workers in another division, who had clearly expressed their will to strike, at exactly the same period that the other strike was taking place. At the Tribune, only some of the unions went out and the other workers continued working. At Hormel, only one plant is on strike. Thus, the union bureaucracy didn’t offer the workers a policy that showed a way to change the relationship of forces. In fact, they divided and reduced even the most immediate forces of the workers in the face of a generalized attack by the bosses.
Nonetheless, the workers on strike seemed to have the feeling that they needed to go beyond the limits of their own immediate plant, to break out of their isolation. They posed the goal of winning solidarity and support. In a more or less vague and unconscious way, they acted on the idea that to fight more effectively, they needed to find help from other workers. Even a layer of the union officials, at least as far as we can judge from afar, seemed to be conscious of and express the need for this solidarity. Ray Ladd, president of Local 6 of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers at Bath, expressed a sense of the need for working class solidarity, “We really learned that you can’t look at these fights as just your union against your company. This is a national fight, and labor is starting to stand up today. We’ll be proud to help other unions who find themselves forced out in the streets like we were.” A letter from the General Dynamics Warren Local Educational Committee to other UAW locals and other unions said, “We are a small section of the UAW and the labor movement. We are aware that our strength to fight back against concession demands comes from the support we give, as well as the support we receive, from our brothers and sisters who are fighting the same anti-concession struggle.” Jim Coakley, president of the same Warren local, who had led the opposition to the contract, and encouraged the workers to fight, said he looked forward to the possibility of the Chrysler workers going on strike and fighting at the same time as the General Dynamics workers.
In general, when the unions appealed for solidarity these appeals met with a sympathetic response. At Bath, the state AFL-CIO vowed to bring a truckload of food a week from member unions. The Wheeling-Pitt workers had solidarity rallies involving workers from other unions. District 31, of the steelworkers in Chicago-Gary, an area hard hit by layoffs, raised 29 thousand dollars to support the strikers. Coal miners from Western Pennsylvania rallied to the support of steelworkers in Ohio. Workers from other unions held rallies and joined the picket lines at the Tribune. The P-9 workers joined the picket lines of other strikers, and toured a five state area enlisting support for their strike.
While such solidarity is a help and good for morale, nonetheless it is not sufficient to win a strike today. In a period of crisis when the bosses are less concerned about production, when they can afford a long strike, for the workers simply to raise money and take donations of food so that they can stay out longer is not a very efficient way of reinforcing the strength of the workers. It doesn’t allow them really to threaten the society which the bosses control, to threaten even the bosses’ government. Today what the bosses would fear is not so much a long isolated strike, but social unrest. It is along these lines that we could imagine other possibilities, even in these recent strikes we have examined. Thousands of workers were affected by these strikes. But most of the workers found little to do in them overall. What if all that human potential had been mobilized along different lines?
The 4500 workers at Bath could have toured the state of Maine calling on other workers to join a fight against concessions and two-tier. The 8200 workers at Wheeling-Pitt could have gone around the Pittsburgh and Chicago area, rallying other steelworkers in a common fight against concessions in the steel industry. The 4600 General Dynamics workers instead of waiting and hoping that the Chrysler workers would go out with them eventually, could have gone to all the Chrysler plants and asked the workers to join them right away. There are millions of other workers too in other industries that have been the victims of concessions that could be asked to join. And there are millions of unemployed workers who if they joined and made it also a fight for jobs, could go a long way towards discouraging any worker from scabbing. The Hormel demonstrations against the banks point in the right direction. No corporation stands alone today. They are connected by a whole network to the bankers and the other corporations. So why not point the finger at all who are responsible for attacking the workers? Why not have angry, noisy, attention-getting demonstrations in the downtown areas where the bosses and bankers have their headquarters? The workers have every interest in making sure that business does not go on “as usual,” but instead that the whole ruling class is made to pay a high price for the intransigence of any one of its members who dares to attack the workers.
But to make these kinds of fights means being willing to disrupt the normal functioning of society. It means to break the rules that the union bureaucracy and the bosses hold so sacred. To block the use of scabs and really shut down all of these plants would have meant violating injunctions and risking arrests and bigger confrontations with the state. It is exactly for those reasons that the workers have need of mass picket lines and other forms of organization where their numbers change the relationship of forces between them and the state apparatus. What could change the relationship of forces in the struggles between the workers and the bosses is not the mere solidarity of the other workers, but it is the fact that the struggle spreads and widens, or at least there is the threat that it could do so.
The workers who are already engaged in a fight can turn the feelings of solidarity and sympathy into active participation by other workers in a struggle of their own. The striking workers can ask these workers to join them. The strikers show by their activity, by their example, that they believe it is possible to fight when everyone else is saying NO. These strikers can be a counterpressure on the other workers, against the demoralization that they feel.
These strikes we have described, even though they were defeated, are important. First because they show that even in a period like today, even when the bosses think that the demoralization of the workers is complete, even when the workers face blow after blow, there are still people who in spite of everything show by their reflex to fight that all is not hopeless. There are workers who are ready to fight back no matter how hard or difficult this fight can be.
This fact is not lost on the rest of the working class. The solidarity and sympathy that the strikers found among other sections of the working class shows it. It is understood by the bosses and the government also. In fact, because there are people in the working class who act this way, because there are strikers like this, the bosses are forced to be a little more prudent in their attacks against the workers.
In the next period if the general setback continues, even if there are more defeats for the workers, there will be other strikes. And even if they don’t lead to success in terms of wages, employment, or other material advantages, these struggles are preferable to an acceptance of the bosses’ wishes without fighting. It is the defeats without combat which have had the worst consequences for the working class and the oppressed.
This is true. But it is not enough. It is necessary for the working class to break with the kind of struggles which so far have led it into a dead end. If the workers, starting to fight, direct their struggles so as to allow each movement to go as far as possible, if they take the road which extends the struggle – not staying within the unionist framework of one group of workers against one boss, but exactly the opposite, enlarging the fight as widely as possible – this would give back to the workers the feeling that they are not just small groups isolated within the limits of their individual plant or company, but a class which has one and the same interests. That would mean a turn in the present situation, a new upsurge by the working class.
We cannot count on the union leadership to show that road to the working class. Of course many militants who are in the unions, sometimes even in official positions, in a certain fashion represent their class. They can choose to take the side of the workers against the bureaucracy if they see the way and the means to do it. But the only ones who can indicate the direction to take are those whose policy is based consciously on class struggle – that is the revolutionaries.
But for the revolutionaries to be able to indicate the necessary road, the revolutionaries have to be implanted in the working class centers, in the places where the major fights are most likely to take place. It is there that the revolutionaries will have to fight for the leadership of the strikes in order to have the right to propose a different course to the workers. And it is only there that they can do that.
Certainly, we are not at that point today. But we will not get there tomorrow if today the revolutionaries simply stand on the sidelines of the current fights, cheering them on, explaining the need for support and solidarity, raising money and passing resolutions, bringing students to the workers’ picket lines, but not putting themselves in a position that allows them to compete with the union bureaucracy for the leadership of these fights, for the leadership of the working class. It is only by putting themselves in a position that allows them to compete for the leadership in each strike, that the revolutionaries can give the working class the perspective it needs to allow it to see the way out of today’s impasse.