It’s a sleep that puts Rip Van Winkle to shame. The long, fitful slumber has lasted for more than a generation. But the alarm has sounded and the snooze button is wearing out. Sooner or later, the giant that is the American working class will awaken. When that happens, the game will be dramatically altered; the majority, so used to playing defense, will take the offense; the score, so long lopsided, will begin to shift.
What will it look like once that celebrated last straw has been added to the camel’s back? How will we know that the long slumber is over?
Oh, we’ll know!
The place to focus our attention is on the working class. This is not for abstract, doctrinaire reasons, but because that is where the power lies. It is there that numbers and proximity to production combine to yield a force capable of challenging the 1% for control.
Control of what exactly? The whole works, including which class should be running the country.
When working people finally decide to stop hating their friends and loving their enemies (Malcolm X), the pent up rage and fire from centuries of deceit and exploitation at the hands of corporate elites will be turned toward forging a new normal. People will insist on painting outside the lines, refusing to be bound by convention as they search for effective answers.
We know that greater organization and labor militancy correlate directly with stronger social safety nets and public policies that benefit the majority. On the other hand, a weaker labor movement goes hand-in-hand with increased exploitation and income inequality. So, as with the rise of the CIO in the 1930s, the end of the current big sleep will be signaled by waves of strikes and other labor battles. New, militant labor leaders will come to the fore and bigger, stronger unions, encompassing an ever-growing percentage of the working population, will take root.
In 1933, at the peak of the great depression, more than 12.8 million people were out of work. In response, crucial labor battles were fought in Minneapolis, Toledo, San Francisco, New England and throughout the south. These were followed by other crucial contests, including the historic Flint sit-down strike of 1936 and the coal miners’ strikes of 1941 and 1943. For the first time in a long while, this wave of labor militancy moved the ball down the field, scoring important points for our team.
Meanwhile, at the height of the most recent recession (2009), 17.1 million were listed as unemployed – over four million more than at the height of the great depression. While today’s figure represents a smaller percent of the total working population, that distinction provides little comfort to the millions who have had to scrape by. And still the giant sleeps.
As with the labor battles of the last century, the battles this time around will be led by socialists and other radical workers who have come to understand the class nature of the playing field. Politicians – including Bernie Sanders-type socialists in name only, whose first loyalty is to the capitalist system – will either stand aside or get trampled along with other obstacles that get in the way.
It’s an open secret that the union leadership today is overwhelmingly corrupt, bureaucratic and ineffective. But as the working class torpor comes to an end, so too will the reign of the bureaucrats. We will see more efforts like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Steelworkers FightBack and Miners for Democracy. The effective, fighting unions of the near future will amplify their strength through rank and file democracy. The outrageous salaries and perks enjoyed by top union officials today – benefits that set them apart from the ranks and make it easy to cozy up to corporate execs who enjoy similar riches – will no longer be tolerated. More and more, we’ll see rank and file movements insisting on:
* Union officials receiving no more in compensation than the workers they represent.
* Complete union democracy, from the local to the international level, with the highest authority and final word resting with assemblies of the rank and file members.
* Open and democratic elections for all officials, with immediate recall of any official not meeting the needs of the ranks.
As this revitalization process unfolds, the new fighting unions will spread to new factories, offices and shops. Workers never before organized will join or form unions of their own. Even the unemployed will become organized.
At some point, committees may form in factories, shops, offices and fields, where people gather to discuss their grievances and map out a strategy for fighting back. Both local and national issues would be taken up.
Here, the lack of democratic rights in the work place could be addressed head-on. The work place – where people spend most of their waking hours, where all of society’s wealth is produced, where, for centuries, those who do the work have had no say it what is produced or how – will become a hotbed of discussion and rebellion. Everything will be up for debate, from who should be supervising the shop floor to who should be running the enterprise.
These new committees will not be limited to places that are unionized. In some cases, more radical unions will promote the formation of the new committees; in others, the committees may precede formal union organizing.
Yes, it will be an upheaval like no other. But there’s more.
If we were to point to one thing that has held back the US working class more than any other – one ingredient that, like an anesthetic, has induced and prolonged the big sleep – it would be illusions in the Democratic and Republican parties. Touted by the union bureaucracy as “friends of labor”, the two corporate parties have proven time and again to be a deadly trap for the working class. Their aim is to tame any discontent. Like Tai Chi masters, the big business parties are experts at channeling the anger and energy of the working class back against itself. There will be no awakening, no end to the current nightmare, without breaking decisively with the capitalist politicians and their parties.
For this reason, one of the best indications that a new day has arrived will be the building of a political arm of the labor movement that can take the fight beyond the shop floor, out into the streets and to society at large. Such a political arm will be both an organizing tool and a weapon to fight for political power. That fight will be waged against the very parties that have held society captive for so long, and against the class that pulls their strings. By constructing a party of its own, the labor movement will for the first time in US history move from begging for crumbs from the slave masters to openly moving to supplant them. (For why the Green Party and other formations not anchored in the working class don’t fit the bill, see here.)
While everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck under capitalism is exploited, some are exploited more than others. Immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos all face higher rates of unemployment and persecution. Women still earn 79 cents for each dollar earned by men for equivalent work.
Classical economist, Adam Smith, understood that while workers outnumber capitalists, this asymmetry makes it harder for workers to act collectively. The key to overcoming this disadvantage is solidarity. The ascendant labor movement will either champion the struggles of the most oppressed, or it will quickly slip back into a coma. Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, Native American rights, and the fight against racism, sexism and xenophobia in all of their forms are life and death struggles for the labor movement as a whole. This is not just because each of these causes is morally right, but because each is used to sow divisions among working people – divisions which, if not overcome, would prevent building the momentum necessary to change society, thus ceding the advantage to our exploiters.
* * *
The movements in the streets today – for immigrant rights, women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, 15-Now and for action on climate change – are all immensely important. Progress on any one of these would be a victory for working people and a blow to the ruling rich. But to win the overall war, these and other battles need to link up with the now-dormant labor colossus. In this way, each struggle for justice becomes transformed into a palpable threat to the powers that be. This is also one of the best ways to coax the working class out of its slumber and, in so doing, take the offensive after so many years of having to play defense. Harnessing the power of the labor movement makes it possible to change the rules of the game, allowing the majority to advance from fighting for concessions to giving the orders.
When the working class rose up in the 1930s, many gains were won. All of the progress attributed to Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was a direct result of the militant labor upsurge that forced his hand. Unfortunately, the most effective weapons of the working class – the unions – were captured by reactionary bureaucrats who steered labor toward a century of somnambulistic class-collaboration. The most militant, conscious leaders were driven out of the labor movement. The victories achieved were never protected on the political front by breaking with the capitalist parties and launching a labor party. The unelected titans of industry were kept in charge and given ample time to regroup. As a result, all of the gains of past struggles have been constantly under attack, and some have been severely rolled back.
History can repeat itself…but it doesn’t have to. We can learn from the past and avoid making the same mistakes.
Is this image of the coming awakening overly idealistic? Far from it. We’re not painting a picture of how things might look if we were to turn around the decades-old corporate assault on our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Rather, this is a sober assessment of what we must see if we are to have any possibility of beating back that assault. Mapping out the path ahead – navigating around multiple obstacles, through difficult terrain – is not utopian. On the contrary, it’s how you win. When the giant reawakens this time around, hold onto your hats. We’ll be in for quite a ride.