The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Things Are Better?
Not by a Long Shot!

Feb 21, 2011

The following was taken from a presentation given in Detroit at a Spark public meeting in January.

Governors across the country are trying to sell us the seriously delusional idea that if the business tax is reduced by about half and a state loses a billion or so in income, then that will create jobs.

It’s crazy, a businessman’s fantasy. How much money do they need? Here’s a recent Wall Street Journal headline: “GE, Apple, Toyota: The Top 50 Cash Hoarders.” The top 50 public companies NOT EVEN COUNTING banks and hedge funds are HOLDING BACK more than a TRILLION dollars in reserve until they see better investment opportunities. IF they already have $1.08 trillion and they are not creating jobs, HOW MUCH MORE DO THEY NEED?

How has that policy of giving gifts and tax breaks to corporations been working out for us? The companies have taken their gifts from taxpayers and have broken their “job creating” promises left and right.

Nationally the official unemployment rate is said to be 9.4%. But even that horrendous figure is doctored with the rosiest colors. If we include those who are totally discouraged and no longer looking for jobs, and if we then include those 26 million who are stuck in part time work and can’t find full time, then in reality, almost one fourth of us have an unemployment problem.

You can’t open a paper or listen to a radio without some idiot peddling the fantasy that we are in a recovery. Last weekend A Detroit paper had a two page spread about the huge recovery in the restaurant industry. A Subway shop hired 10 people. It made headlines. Ten people – when in Michigan there are 600,000 actively looking for work!

There is one recovery that is not a fantasy. Corporate profits. Already in the third quarter of last year, U.S. business overall earned profits at an annual rate of 1.659 trillion dollars. That is the highest level of profits recorded in 60 years. It is even higher than the record set in 2006 during the speculation boom in sub-prime mortgages!

A few days ago, a New York Times economic columnist wrote the following: “The jobless recovery is the third straight recovery to begin with months and months of little job growth. Why? One obvious possibility is the balance of power between employers and employees.... American employers operate with few restraints.”

An amazing burst of honesty from one of the bosses’ most important newspapers.

Everybody in the world of wealth and power knows exactly what the situation is. The working class is not using the power it could use. We are not fighting for OUR bailouts, the way the banks and the auto companies fought for theirs.

Downhill for a Long Time

The working class economy has been on a gradual downslide for many years. There are several dates a person could pick for a milestone, like maybe 1981, when Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ union and organized labor didn’t fight it. But let me pick a more recent year, the good old days of 2005. Now we are going to talk a little UAW here since I have been UAW since 1972. I retired in 2002 – still the good old days you might say. Yes we had taken concessions but “little ones.” Few people understood where the concessions road would take us. Now here comes 2005. The UAW agrees to re-open the contract for just a “small concession.” Just to help out us retirees, it was said, active workers would defer a mere 17 cents COLA and the 2006 annual improvement wage increase. This was done during a big hue and cry about GM going bankrupt – the beginning of the big bankruptcy fear campaigns.

The majority of active workers, a small majority, gave in to this new small concession. None of them imagined then how far backwards the UAW would go in five years.

Who could have believed the transformation of the UAW from a union that had always maintained a common base pay for all unskilled members, and a common base pay for skilled workers into a union of two tier and three tier wages?

Who could have believed the way that us Big Three retirees would be reduced to living on a knife edge of uncertainty about our whole retirement? Being nickeled and dimed to death on our health care – health care that was guaranteed to us, without cost to us for life, if only we would work 30 years for one company. So they said. I sat in that courtroom where the UAW lawyers and the GM lawyers read from exactly the same script to a federal judge who then released GM from those definite contractual healthcare obligations and allowed GM to limit its contributions no matter what it would do to the retirees’ benefits! That was done under the cover of saying it would be safer for retirees that way if GM went broke!

And who could imagine when GM first spun off Delphi in 1999 that Delphi – this enormous subsidiary to this enormous profit-making GM – that Delphi would go ahead and declare a sham bankruptcy in 2005? And then colossal GM itself would get the government to finance its own “quick rinse” bankruptcy. And even more unimaginable, that part of the “quick rinse” would involve workers being saddled with a no strike clause and a wage freeze until 2015! It would give the company the right to unlimited new hiring at two tier: half pay, few benefits, and no traditional pension at all! Worse than the conditions in the Southern transplants, where there is no union.

It Won’t Stop until We Stop It

The rapid decline of the UAW is paralleled in the snowballing pressure on workers everywhere. President Obama froze federal workers’ pay for two years. It’s not the end of such attacks. Postal workers have been under a barrage of threats to their jobs. GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt says the economy needs to be reset. Jeffrey was just appointed to President Obama’s jobs council. This is what they mean: they want the workers’ economy reset DOWN so the bosses’ economy can reset UP.

Having disposed of the auto union they are moving on to the public workers: States, cities and school districts all cry to high heaven that they are in deficit and they cannot afford overpaid union workers. About the tax breaks to nowhere they have nothing to say.

So now the public schools in Detroit have a so-called financial manager, trained and paid by private financial interests, closing 52 more schools and proposing to cram 60 kids into a class. In the past five years, 124 Detroit public schools have been closed. And they dare to claim this will improve education!

In Detroit and every other working class town and city, the parks and recreation centers and afterschool programs disappear. The fire stations close and consolidate, the EMS services shrink.

How long will this retreat go on? How long will the wealthy grab up everything in sight? There is only one answer: until we decide to stop retreating. It won’t stop until we stop it. It’s just that simple. The longer they convince us to wait, the more they can take from us.

I’ve seen them use the fear tactic over and over to persuade people to just put up with a small or medium cutback today because “otherwise the plant might close,” “otherwise the company will go bankrupt,” “otherwise you’ll lose your job.” They make it believable – like you dare not take a chance – but it’s always a lie.

The lies are wearing thin! Ford workers turned down a national contract for the first time in 2009. City workers and state office workers came out in the streets last year to protest cutbacks. Are we at a point of change? How long will it take? What will it take? No one knows.

History Is a Guide

We have patterns to look back on, right now. The Great Depression. We all know it started in 1929. But even before, in 1926 there was a recession in jobs, people were laid off. But the banks kept on speculating like mad, and then came the big 1929 stock market crash. Banks went out of business overnight. The depositors lost all their money because the banks had taken the deposits and speculated with them and suddenly the game collapsed. Sounds like 2008 and it was.

The unemployment that started in 1926 jumped much higher after 1929. The first real protests didn’t begin until 1932, when the Bonus Army of unemployed World War I veterans marched on Washington. And the unemployed Detroit workers marched to Ford in the Hunger March, where Ford’s private army killed five unarmed marchers. There was a rubber workers strike in Akron. But the protests didn’t generalize.

Workers endured two more years of hard times until, in 1934, the San Francisco longshore strike, the Minneapolis Teamsters strike, and the Toledo Auto-lite strike broke the logjam. These were outright victories. The battles didn’t generalize. But they did prove that workers could win if they stuck together.

For over two more years the working class stayed quiet – on the surface. But finally, after 11 years of waiting, at the end of 1936, came the GM sit-downs. Forty-four days of taking over GM’s property and not letting go. The victory of the sit-downs loosed the flood. The working class all across the industrial Midwest sat down too. Waitresses, cigar molders, everyone. The bosses gave in almost immediately, over and over again. The working class finally forced a reset upwards in their wages and conditions across the board.

What’s the Difference – 1937-2011?

Going into that sit-down surge, the working class of the 1930s had a very important advantage that is mostly lacking today. The important milestone strikes of 1934 were led by socialist and communist militants who belonged to relatively small organizations. They don’t teach this history in history. The auto sit-downs, too, were led by communist militants. Those militants might have been in different organizations – the Communist Party or the Communist League of America or the American Workers Party or, to a lesser extent, the Socialist Party – but they were confident in the capacities of the working class when it finally moved.

It was communist militants who went to work every day, who discussed with workers they worked with about the real class situation and what could be done – communist militants who built up small networks of people who could depend on each other, who could lead struggles when workers would begin to move. They did this work during the quiet years. They did it in many more places than San Francisco or Minneapolis. They didn’t know when or how or where things would open up. But when things broke, they were ready for it.

If they could devote themselves to that work, it was because of their convictions that communism was the workers’ politics; because of their organizations, made up of devoted militants to the cause of the working class. They were never very many compared to the working class’s millions. But in those particular battles, they made all the difference.

When I was in high school and then college, you never heard the word communist except as a threat to what they called our way of life. There was no one saying any different. The combination of McCarthy repression plus the disappointments of Stalinism plus the temporarily high working class standards of living all conspired to make it unmentionable.

One of the real advantages gained in the social struggles of the 1960s was that big parts of the iron curtain of McCarthyism were torn down. In particular, during the Sixties, some activists who went through different sorts of experiences in different movements – civil rights, peace movement, trade unions, women’s movement – became communists. There are communist militants in the working class today. Yes, not many. Yes, for sure, not nearly enough. But when the working class does begin to move, it will have resources. It will not need to start totally from scratch.

There is simply no exit from capitalism, no answer to the problems of class society, except by taking the road of socialism and communism. To proceed along that road depends on the working class becoming active and learning through its experience that it has the capacity to take command of society and finally run it in the interests of the whole laboring population.