Let me make something perfectly clear up front. Along with some powerful disagreements, I have a great deal of respect for Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees union. He and his union have made and continue to make important contributions to labor. SEIU is a powerful and innovative union with hundreds of thousands of great leaders and activists. I mention Stern here because he has been most outspoken in the big business press about what I believe to be some very wrong ideas in the labor movement; wrong ideas that very much need to be debated.
Is Stern right that class struggle trade unionism is outdated and a leftover from the heyday of industrial unionism? Is he right that corporate globalization is inevitable and all that unions can do is go along to get along? I think not.
Class struggle trade unionism is only outdated if the class struggle is over. For most workers, public or private, that’s a bit of a hard sell. For most working people, the class struggle is more apparent now than it has been since the 1930s. Workers’ wages are declining and there is a record-breaking wealth gap. We face the most concerted union-busting corporate attack on worker rights in 70 years. Pensions and health care are being eliminated. The rising ultra-right political agenda is filled with attacks on the working class, featuring racism, immigrant-bashing and attacks on women and youth. Tax cuts and war are draining resources from education, health, human and public services in cities and rural areas. In short: from the working class to the pockets of the rich.
There are incredible new global concentrations of capital, and ever-growing corporate and capitalist power. Bush’s right-wing agenda, echoed in Congress and the Supreme Court, is not primarily about so-called moral or cultural issues. Those are mostly cynical smokescreens to mask an unprecedented shift of power, wealth and rights to the corporations and banks. The unprecedented profits of the oil conglomerates, the banks and the other transnationals are the spoils of class struggle.
Dare we say it? The whole Republican right-wing agenda is “class warfare” against labor and the people.
Legions of union-busting lawyers serve as the advance infantry of big business. Government agencies including the Departments of Labor and Commerce, the NLRB and OSHA are twisted into agencies of attack against workers, without much pretense of neutrality.
That’s pretty much class warfare by any definition. Yet the right has convinced some that calling it class warfare or the class struggle is too radical. What a great way to disarm us.
We’ve all watched some politicians retreat at the accusation of class warfare. But without facing directly the fact that there is a capitalist class that is going all-out to turn back the clock on the working class, how can we possibly fight back effectively? We are not under attack from a few bad apples in the corporate world — we are under attack by a system called capitalism. And capitalism is organized class struggle dominated by the capitalist class. In plain language, their profits come out of our hides. It really is labor that creates all wealth.
Few corporations are willing to give up profiteering when they clearly have the upper hand. When the unions are stronger, corporations have to make some concessions. But with the Bush administration and attacks of the last 20 years, unions are weakened and corporations see no need to give any ground.
Some argue that a few labor leaders promote cooperation and discount the class struggle as a tactic. They say these union leaders want to appear reasonable and cooperative to coax concessions out of the “better” employers. The trouble is, it’s not only corporations that hear the call of such labor leaders for cooperation and no class-struggle fight back. Workers losing everything under the corporate onslaught hear it too. Where does that leave them? This is the kind of thinking that leads to ideas like the notion that the only folks unions can really organize and defend now are workers whose jobs can’t be outsourced. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” the real power of class struggle trade unionism, goes out the window.
Not recognizing the reality of the class struggle leads to many other wrong ideas. Like arguing against single-payer health care because big pharmaceutical and insurance won’t go along. Or ideas that the global working class can’t take on global capital and win, so therefore it’s best to help the corporations globalize “humanely.”
Should class struggle trade unionism be updated and renewed? Of course. The struggle has changed and new strategies, new tactics are needed. The struggle is more global than ever before. SEIU has recognized this in some important campaigns and gone for global solidarity. But global solidarity can’t just be one fight at a time. It has to be broader and bigger and, well, more global.
Marx once famously said that he hadn’t invented the class struggle. And none of us has the power to abolish it by saying it ain’t so.
Scott Marshall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the Communist Party USA’s Labor Commission.