The Spark

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

Needed in 2023:
A “Social Wildfire”

Jan 23, 2023

What follows is the editorial that appeared on the front of all SPARK’s workplace newsletters, during the week of January 15, 2023.

Nurses at two New York City hospitals went out on strike last week. After three days facing picket lines, the hospitals made a new offer. Did it give nurses everything they asked for? Definitely not. But hospitals agreed to fewer patients per nurse, which they refused to do before the strike.

There have been local strikes like this all over the country in the last year: little ones with just a few hundred workers, sometimes a thousand.

It’s welcome news. The bosses’ ongoing drive to increase profits weighs on workers everywhere. No one has wages that keep up with inflation. Working conditions are destructive, even deadly. And although there are job openings, very few are for stable, well-paid, decent-benefits jobs.

So these local strikes are important. Isolated they may be. Alone, none of them can begin to overcome all the problems. Some were openly defeated. But taken altogether, these strikes look like the working class gathering its forces to fight.

This year, there are some big union contracts expiring: 200,000 U.S. Postal Service carriers in four unions; 250,000 United Parcel Service drivers and warehouse workers; 151,000 auto workers, with hundreds of thousands more at parts plants and “non-union” plants tied to what happens in the main auto contract; 75,000 hospital workers in California; teachers everywhere.

The problems workers face won’t be settled by a strike at just their own workplace—even one of these big companies, with many workplaces.

But when workers are angry and frustrated, any of these strikes can be the match touching off a fire that spreads to other workers.

That is what we need, a social wildfire, a strike that spreads from company to company. Faced with a problem like inflation, we won’t get the wages we need at just one company or in just one industry. We need to wrench wage increases from the whole capitalist class, and their big banks who set this inflation in motion.

Union contracts over the years have been carefully organized to make sure there is no social wildfire. Contracts expire at different times in different industries or companies. And the unwritten, but always enforced law is that workers can’t strike unless their contract has expired.

Who says we have to obey such an anti-worker law? It’s aimed at keeping strikes from coalescing into the wider struggle we need.

The bosses don’t reduce their forces. When there is a strike, companies don’t take on striking workers alone. As soon as big picket lines go up, police and courts act to cut them down. And companies also depend on the federal and state governments. The Biden administration just worked to handcuff railroad workers with a contract they didn’t want, using courts, arbitrators and laws to do it. State governments declare teachers’ strikes illegal, then threaten to fine the teachers or their union. Michigan has imposed such fines. So has Wisconsin and Ohio.

After the 1997 UPS strike, the government issued a criminal complaint against one of the main leaders of the strike—then used it to remove him from the union. Even when a trial found him innocent, he didn’t regain union membership. Government is on the bosses’ side in a strike.

And companies band together. Imagine what will happen if postal workers go out—UPS will step up to deliver more mail. In a UPS strike, the Postal Service will deliver more packages. When GM was on strike, it got stock delivered from one of its struck plants which furnishes parts to other auto companies. And those companies paid GM.

What we need in our current situation is a real social wildfire. One that puts no limits on itself before it starts, one that lets no government, no court, no company, no contract put limits on it when it gets going. The only limits should be the ones workers decide on for themselves.

Our goal in 2023 should be to make our strikes as powerful as we and our fellow workers can make them. In other words, spread them and organize ourselves so we can be the ones who decide how our strikes are carried out.