News about workers: strikes, protests, mass actions, etc., including exposures of conditions
Outcome of French Workers’ Struggle against So-Called ‘Pension Reform’ a Critical Moment in World Class Struggle
AFTER A MONTH of mass strikes, mass protests and pitched battles with the cops in the streets, French workers are at a crossroads. Whatever happens next in this struggle will have long-lasting effects, not only for the working class of France, but for workers around the world.
The current series of battles began on December 5 with strikes and mass protests against efforts by the government to “reform” the pension system and reduce the living standards of all workers. The “reform” would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and would switch the calculation of pensions to a “points” system that would see retirement payouts fall on average between 20 and 30 percent — not only for future retirees, but also for current ones.
Working women and those with unstable employment will be hardest hit, as the new scheme does not account for the effects of short-term layoffs, job staggering, family care and wage inequality.
More than 1.5 million workers marched and went on strike throughout France on this “day of action” called by the unions. Rail traffic and mass transit came to a virtual halt as workers joined the protests. Seven of the country’s eight oil refineries were shut down. More than one-third of government workers and half of all teachers joined the marches and went on strike. Strikes by airport workers, especially air traffic controllers, closed most of the country’s largest airports. Truck drivers set up 15 blockades on the major highways.
Five days later, another 880,000 participated in marches across the country, including students and hospital workers, as well as a large contingent of “Yellow Vests.” Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe stated that he would push through the pension reforms despite opposition.
Shortly after the protests on Dec. 10 and Phillipe’s statement, the unions called a second “day of action” for a week later. In the days preceding this next mass protest, more strikes were called. The main ports of Marseilles and Le Havre closed, as did the eighth oil refinery. Electrical power workers also downed tools, causing rolling blackouts.
Nearly 2 million workers went on strike and marched during the Dec. 17 “day of action,” with increased participation by transport and educational workers. Only the day before, the minister in charge of implementing Macron’s “pension reform” was forced to resign after it was revealed he was receiving money from private pension insurance corporations in exchange for his services.
Since that time, strikes among rail and mass transit workers continue, as do local and regional protests, as Macron and Phillipe continue to move ahead with implementing their “pension reform.”
When he came to power in the summer of 2017, Macron vowed to continue the work of his predecessors, conservative Jacques Chirac and social democrat François Hollande, by continuing to dismantle the labor laws established after the Second World War and crushing the ability of workers to organize and fight against the exploiting classes.
Through a succession of presidential decrees (Ordonnances) imposed in the name of “EU directives” — directives usually drafted by France and Germany — Macron has changed key sections of the labor law to meet the demands of French capital, backing it up with brutal police repression. Indeed, the wave of violence against workers in France is the worst since the Vichy regime during the 1940-1944 Nazi occupation of the country, including the authorization to use live ammunition against the “Yellow Vest” protesters last March.
During the last month of workers’ actions, the violence has only intensified, with recently-retired Army Chief of Staff (and likely future presidential candidate) General Pierre de Villiers declaring on RTL radio: “A gulf has emerged between those who lead and those who obey. This gulf is profound. The ‘yellow vests’ were already a first sign of this…. We must restore order; things cannot continue this way.” The message is clear: The exploiters and their state will, if necessary, drown the French working class in blood in order to defeat them!
Into the middle of this rising workers’ militancy being met with increasing police repression has stepped the unions, with one single mission … to negotiate the workers’ surrender to Macron!
From the beginning, the unions in France have done nearly everything in their power to limit, isolate and sabotage the strikes. Even before the December actions began, the unions attempted to negotiate a “grandfather clause” in Macron’s “reform,” creating a permanent two-tier retirement system and sacrificing younger workers. When workers started staging wildcat strikes and protests against “pension reform,” the unions stepped in to stop them. In fact, the unions themselves are divided, with two of the federations, the corporatist CFDT and UNSA, not opposing Macron’s plans.
Throughout December, the union leaders made regular pilgrimage to the prime minister’s residence to plead for a crumb from the master’s table, only to find none offered. Thus, while the “left” unions meet as the Intersyndicale to figure out the best way to fully capitulate to Macron while maintaining control of their memberships, they all present a united front against the workers, pushing off any future “days of action” — in fact, any action — to a time and place when it will no longer matter and the momentum of struggle has been lost.
The fact is that there is nothing to negotiate with Macron-Philippe, the ruling classes or their state. The central task for French workers now is to continue the strikes and protests, not as impotent “days of action,” but as daily struggle that builds self-organization and coordination, that unites the current general assemblies, along with strike assemblies and general struggle groups, into workers’ committees and assemblies of action that include workers, both public and private, takes control of the movement out of the hands of the treacherous unions, and can organize effective self-defense.
The Humiliating Defeat of GM Workers Offers Many Lessons about Today’s Trade Unions and Tomorrow’s Labor Struggles
As we go to press, it has been announced that a tentative agreement has been reached between the United Auto Workers and Fiat Chrysler, effectively ending 2019 contract negotiations. Moreover, it has been reported that Gary Jones has resigned his position as UAW president, in an effort to avoid being removed and stripped of his pension. Look in future issues of Workers’ Path to Power for analysis on these and other important developments.
The Problem with Reforming Unions
WHEN A STRIKE ends, especially in defeat, talk inevitably turns to the future and what needs to be done. Discussion focuses on how to ensure that the failures, the betrayals and the defeats become a thing of the past. The starting (and, often, ending) point of these talks is union reform.
For almost as long as there have been unions, there have been calls for union reform. In this respect, union reform was a part of unionism itself, not a challenge to it. The reformers were there as a kind of steam valve that could be utilized to release the pressure and stresses that workers felt as a result of the unions submitting to the demands of capital.
Union reform movements continue to play this role today. They allow workers to vent the feelings of anger, frustration and betrayal they develop during the course of a defeated strike in a manner that, in the final analysis, does not challenge the unions themselves or even the bureaucratic officials running them. Indeed, these reform movements don’t even cause the bureaucratic officials enough consternation to interrupt their nightly rest.
(Some “official” reform movements, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, even provide a safety net for bureaucrats, giving them a path to redemption … and power).
Of course, there are reforms and there are reforms. Some might even package up their reforms as a kind of “revolution” in the union, or see the best road to reform through the switching out of one union with another. Whatever the form chosen, the content of the union and of unionism remains unchanged.
Nevertheless, we proletarian communists mustn’t be cynical when workers themselves call out for reform, even if we understand quite well that they do not resolve the fundamental problems of unions as labor contractors and mediators of the price of one’s ability to work.
We should always bear in mind that workers struggling with coming to an organic class consciousness are going to start with reform, since that is the only form of opposition with which they are familiar. At the same time, it is our responsibility to be honest with our fellow workers, to point out the sordid history of union reform, to work with them so they can analyze for themselves and understand why these movements are a dead end.
Central to this is explaining that no amount of reform can change the character of unions under capitalism as labor contractors and wage mediators. The labor laws adopted by the exploiting classes, especially throughout the 20th century, require unions to take on these roles and operate within the framework of capitalism. This was not so much a choice, but rather the price of legalization. If the unions did not accept, they would not receive legal protection or recognition by the state.
This is why unions, no matter how many reforms are enacted, how “militant” or “rank-and-file” the leadership is, or how sincere the pledges to fight for the membership, cannot act as organizations for the defense of workers’ rights and living standards beyond the most narrow of economic issues. This means that gains they might make today are under constant attack and will be reversed at the first opportunity. Moreover, many issues workers raise today, such as an end to mass precarity (e.g., making large sections of the workforce temporary), are increasingly political and require a measure of state intervention to maintain. Thus, unions won’t even seriously consider them as legitimate demands to advocate.
Unions capitulated to capital in order to become legal and their bureaucratic officials respectable. Meanwhile, workers were left to twist in the wind, subject to an intensified wage slavery and lacking any viable alternative.
Beyond Unions and Unionism
It is clear today, based on the lessons of the last century, that the existing unions and union models (corporatist/business, “rank-and-file,” “revolutionary”/syndicalist, and so on) have long since become obsolete as instruments for the workers’ class struggle, both in an historical and practical sense. No amount of reforms, “boring from within” or “capture of the summit” can change their basic character.
However, what is not obsolete is the desire for workplace organization. That basic impulse among workers to unite and defend their class interests, from the immediate to the historic — that impulse that once motivated the formation of the earliest unions, as well as other forms of workers’ organizing — is perhaps more important today than at any time in the past. Indeed, it is the self-organization of the class into its own bodies of struggle that drives the fight against capitalism today.
A glimpse of this kind of workers’ self-organization could be seen in the mass wildcat strikes of maquiladora autoworkers in Matamoros, Mexico, last February. Facing off against the bosses, the charro unions, the capitalist state and various NGO leftists who are tied to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government, tens of thousands of workers organized to defend their own rights and livelihoods, building workers’ assemblies to organize, expand and coordinate strikes at over 85 auto parts factories around the central demands of a 20 percent raise and a 32,000 peso bonus.
After nearly two months of fighting, which slowed down (and, in some places, shut down) production in North America, the maquiladora workers won their demands. Moreover, they were joined in victory by others in the area, most notably teachers, who were able to win their own raises and bonuses.
But Matamoros is not an isolated incident. Over the last 50 years, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, some of the most intensive strikes have seen workers break with the unions, establishing strike committees, workers’ committees and assemblies as the means of waging their own fight for the well-being of themselves, their families and their class.
In periods like today, where large class battles are few and far between, the rise of these mass class-struggle bodies are inevitably a temporary phenomenon. It is only when the class is in an ongoing state of open struggle — when strikes, occupations, mass strikes, etc., occur on an almost daily basis, such as when entering a revolutionary period — that these organs look like something more permanent.
(In a period of workers’ revolution and the victory of the workers’ republic, these bodies will assume a semi-permanent character as key bodies responsible for production.)
Nevertheless, other, smaller, class-struggle bodies may emerge in these periods, such as workers’ discussion circles or agitational struggle groups. These often emerge relatively spontaneously, without any kind of prodding or outside guidance. Working with and, to the extent it is possible and principled, within these bodies is key to intervening in our class to move beyond mere unions and unionism.
At the same time, proletarian communists can have both a complementary and parallel role to that of the discussion and struggle groups. For example, we can support, encourage and publicize the formation and work of such class-struggle bodies, not only through literature, such as articles and leaflets, but also through promoting engagement with these groups by their fellow workers, both inside and outside of the workplaces they cover.
That said, our role is not simply to be a passive tag-tail of the class struggle groups/assemblies, nor is it to substitute ourselves for them in any way. Rather, our role is to intervene in these bodies and movements on a conscious, organized political basis, directly connected to the proletarian communist organization as a fraction or section, with the goal of winning our fellow workers to the program for a workers’ republic and workers’ control of production.
This would be a two-fold mission. First, educating about the history and lessons of the class struggle, and how they apply to today’s and tomorrow’s battles, especially how even seemingly narrow economic conflicts have, at their root, an inescapable political character.
Second, our organized intervention would assist the class-struggle groups in avoiding the errors that would drag them on to the path of mere unionism. Often, demoralization due to a lack of struggle can pull these groups toward desperate attempts to hold on to its numbers and even its existence. History shows this only results in them transforming into unions and losing their overall class-struggle character.
Finally, we must realize that progress will move at the pace of the class struggle, not our own. We must be realistic in our intervention, be patient and prepare for the long haul.
BOLIVIA HAS BECOME the latest entry on the long and repetitive list of countries targeted by the Great Power cartels of imperialism in its drive to re-divide the resources of the world to their advantage. Since the initiation of the coup d’etat on November 10, which brought down the populist regime of Evo Morales, Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, continues to balance precariously on the brink of civil war.
While the immediate pretext for the coup was a series of contrived “anomalies” related to the October 20 general elections, mostly with the unofficial “quick-count” vote tally, tensions between the Morales government and the exploiting classes had been building up to a breaking point for years.
Riding a wave of working-class and poor-peasant opposition to resource privatization and superexploitation, Morales and his MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party came to power in early 2006. Almost immediately, they set to work terminating some of the most egregious of the deals with international mining firms; while ultimately paying out nearly $2 billion in settlements, the actions nearly tripled the size of Bolivia’s economy, which allowed Morales to fund social welfare programs and improve the social position of large sections of the indigenous petty bourgeoisie.
As Marx so aptly pointed out almost 170 years ago, such “reforms” put in place by petty-bourgeois democrats, social democrats, populists, and the like, are little more than bribes, “a more or less disguised form of alms […] to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable.” As for the workers themselves, “one thing, above all, is definite: they are to remain wage labourers as before.” (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850)
The termination of these agreements, and the transfer of a fraction of the associated wealth to social programs, drew the ire of world imperialism, primarily that of the U.S., Canada and the European Union. It should come as no surprise, then, that these Great Powers either aided or supported the coup, as well as the orgy of reactionary violence now on display in all the major cities of Bolivia.
The radical petty bourgeoisie was the motor-force driving the overthrow of Morales. Large sections of the class felt threatened by the shift away from lucrative (for them) partnerships with world capital, as well as by the inclusion of ever-larger sections of the indigenous population in the ranks of the exploiting classes. The attempt to expand the ruling classes to include those from indigenous groups — unheard of in the history of Bolivia — not only stirred up fears of proletarianization among the white/mestizo population, but also brought out racist, anti-indigenous sentiment combined with Christian theocratic bigotry.
This has set the stage for radical reactionaries, such as Luis “Macho” Camacho and his Santa Cruz Civic Committee (which have close ties to the fascist Falangist party), to act as the vanguard of reaction, leading attacks on working-class and indigenous neighborhoods, dragging people out of their houses and beating them. The military regularly flies bombers over these neighborhoods and police are using live ammunition and tear gas to break up any demonstrations that take place.
Meanwhile, the response of the Left has been that of pathetic prostration. Having been bound hand and foot to the capitalist state, the main trade unions and indigenous organizations have been able to muster little more than idle threats. They, and the so-called socialist and communist groups on the Left Wing of Capital, have acted as little more than a tag-tail for the spontaneous resistance that has arisen in indigenous areas like El Alto, just outside of the capital, La Paz. Their central political demand is for a bourgeois Constituent Assembly.
While it is certainly not unusual for imperialism to orchestrate “regime change” in states being exploited for their resources, it must be said that the overthrow of Morales represents something new. Bolivia is the subject of the first “green” coup of the 21st century. That is, the ouster of the MAS government was designed specifically to fulfill the needs of world imperialism to shift toward a more “eco-friendly” form of exploitation of the planet.
Bolivia claims the largest reserve of lithium in the world: up to 70 percent of the global supply. Lithium is to the imperialists’ “green new deals” what oil was to industrialization in the 20th century. Without it, the electrical storage and transmission technology needed for large-scale energy generation without fossil fuels is nearly impossible. The Morales government understood this and sought to have any deals to extract lithium be a co-venture with Bolivia’s domestic industry on an equal basis, as well as comply with the wishes of local (mostly indigenous) communities. While Chinese firms were willing to work with the Bolivian government to develop new ways to extract lithium and share profits, American and Canadian companies saw these as a direct impediment on the superexploitation of necessary resources in “their” hemisphere.
It is no wonder that the stock of both U.S.-based Tesla and Canada’s Pure Energy Minerals rose dramatically in the days following the coup. Both corporations stood to benefit substantially from the new regime holding power in La Paz.
For the workers in Bolivia, the path from resistance to power is twofold. First, the expanding and consolidating of the organs of resistance that have sprung up spontaneously in response to the coup. The popular assemblies of workers, peasants and poor people that arose within hours of the ouster of Morales to coordinate resistance and protests should be extended to every factory, mine, mill, shop, working-class neighborhood and city throughout the country. Together with the organization of workers’ self-defense groups, these bodies can serve as a center of workers’ organization and resistance in the wake of the failures and betrayals of the trade unions, indigenous community organizations and political parties that have been tied to the capitalist state and system. Moreover, they can demonstrate in action the central importance of organizing and maintaining the independence of the working class in the face of external class pressures, primarily coming from the MAS and their dependencies.
Second, there is an urgent need for our fellow workers in Bolivia to study carefully the lessons of the class struggle in order to begin to develop a proletarian communist program and party that can aid the working class in achieving its self-organization and self-emancipation from capitalism. Such a party, as part of a proletarian communist international, would be able to assist in preparing our class to fight in future battles with the exploiting classes, and to organize and take power in its own name.
This fight for the future must start today. The lessons of Bolivia’s “green” coup, the failures and betrayals of Morales’ MAS, the Left and the unions, and the role of workers’ self-organization, must be assimilated and fashioned into a weapon for the great class battles to come in the next period.
OVER THE LAST few months, we have seen a wave of mass protests sweep across multiple countries on at least four continents. Indeed, we have seen over the last 11 months protests, strikes and uprisings against the exploiting classes, its state, institutions and acts of austerity.
This wave of class struggle began last December with wildcat strikes, led by working women, at factories in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, China, Hungary, India and Romania, as well as popular (cross-class) revolts in Iraq, Morocco and Tunisia. In Sudan, a three-fold rise in bread prices sparked riots and a popular uprising that ultimately ousted the long-time dictator, President Omar al-Bashir.
At the same time, a series of weekly protests against rising fuel prices was initiated by the popular movement known as the “Yellow Vests.” The protests grew increasingly sharper as 2019 began, forcing French President Emmanuel Macron to make concessions to the protesters. However, the demands of this cross-class movement had grown by that time and the protests continue to this day.
February saw wildcat strikes break out in Iran (again!) and Mexico. The previous November, Iranian workers staged a genuine mass strike in southwestern region of Khuzistan, with workers at the Haft Tapeh sugar factory going so far as to explore the organization of a shora (workers’ council) and workers’ takeover of their workplace. Workers continued their strikes and protests in early 2019, including at the steel plant in Hawaz.
In Mexico, nearly 100,000 workers in Matamoros, in the maquiladora zone on the border with the U.S. began a mass strike against both the bosses and their trade union stooges. After three weeks of struggle, which included facing down the threat of military intervention by “leftist” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and with the help of striking teachers in Michoacán, who blockaded roads and railways, most workers were able to win their demands of a 20 percent wage raise and bonus.
For several months, events seemed to die down. However, September saw popular (cross-class) protests pick up across the Middle East and the Americas. In Egypt, thousands took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities against corruption and growing poverty. More than 3,500 have been detained by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and thousands more injured.
Half a world away, in Haiti, ongoing protests against food and water shortages, price hikes, looting and roadblocks have turned into daily popular protests against corruption and a demand for the resignation of the president, Jovenel Moïse, have effectively shut down the capital, Port-au-Prince.
At the beginning of October, popular protests and riots broke out in Iraq and Ecuador. People took to the streets of Amara, Baghdad, Basra, Najaf and Nassiriya to protest against unemployment, lack of social services and corruption. They were met with bullets (real and rubber), water cannons and tear gas. At least dozens have been killed and thousands have been injured in the clashes.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, the Oct. 1 announcement of an end to fuel subsidies set off a powerful wave of popular unrest and protests, led mainly by indigenous Ecuadorans, that was able to take control of the capital of Quito and force the government of President Lenín Moreno to flee the city and set up shop in the coastal town of Guayaquil.
By mid-October, popular uprisings began in Lebanon and Chile. In Lebanon, the announcement of a tax on WhatsApp messaging sparked mass protests across the country that cut across ethnic and religious lines, forcing the prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, to not only withdraw the tax but also demand that no new taxes be imposed on the poor and working class in 2020. But this has not stopped the protests, which now seek the ouster of al-Hariri’s government and a “revolution.”
At the same time, in Chile, mass popular rejection of a rise in mass transit fares announced Oct. 1 have transformed into the largest protest movement in the country since the end of the August Pinochet dictatorship. At the time of this writing, millions have joined the popular movement, including large sections of the working class. Moreover, the movement itself has begun to take on a character of a mass reckoning over the end of the dictatorship and the “transition to democracy.”
(There are, of course, other events that are continuing to unfold, including the mass protests in Spain, Hong Kong and, most recently, Guinea. These will be addressed in future articles in WPP.)
There is a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth of a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The events of the last year are indeed a great tale of cross-class uprising, with great sound and fury. But does it all signify nothing? Were events to continue and be left to their own devices, the unfortunate answer would be yes. On their own, as they are current constructed, with the de facto political program and leadership left in the hands of the petty bourgeoisie, either of the community leader or trade union bureaucrat type, these cross-class popular movements cannot do anything but fail.
Militancy is an expression of committed action, not a substitute for program. All the militancy that can be mustered by humanity, if used for reformist ends, can, at best, only achieve a reformist conclusion.
It is inevitable that mass social movements, even one for workers’ revolution and the overthrow of capitalism, will contain within it both backward-thinking workers and even non-workers. That is why there is a need for a conscious proletarian communist political leadership, organized into a party that is strictly proletarian in program and makeup, internationalist, and part of a world party of proletarian revolution, within such movements.
It would be the task of such a party to actively intervene, winning its best workers to the communist program, while also educating our fellow proletarians on both the important tasks of the day, as well as the dangers inherent with the presence of elements of the exploiting classes in the movement. At all times, the proletarian communist party must serve as a guardian of the historic interests of our class.
The Humiliating Defeat of GM Workers Offers Many Lessons about Today’s Trade Unions and Tomorrow’s Labor Struggles
THE END OF THE 40-day strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors has left many autoworkers across the U.S. with feelings of anger, frustration and some serious questions about where they and their co-workers go from here.
When the strike began on September 16, many of the over 49,000 autoworkers belonging to the UAW were not only supportive of the action, but also very clear about their demands and what they would consider a victory: the end of the multi-tier system, an end to the growing number of temporary workers by giving them permanent status, a rollback of the concessions handed to the company by the UAW in every contract since 2007, a commitment to not close any more plants, and a guarantee that new products are built in the U.S. by UAW autoworkers. Modest thought they are, these demands would have been the first gains that workers would have made in contract negotiations since the late 1970s.
Moreover, because of the practice of “pattern bargaining,” not only GM, but also Ford and Fiat Chrysler workers would have benefited from the fulfillment of these demands.
However, it was clear very early on that the demands of the autoworkers — their open and adamant support for their temporary co-workers, their belief that over a decade of “sacrifice” to keep GM afloat after its bankruptcy and government bailout should be rewarded, and so on — were not shared by the UAW officials chosen to negotiate with GM management. This should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the UAW.
The reality is that the UAW as an institution never wanted to go on strike; the reason they authorized it was fear and pressure. But we’re not talking about fear of and pressure from the autoworkers themselves, but fear of and pressure from the ongoing federal government investigation into the close ties between the UAW officials and the management of the Big Three auto manufacturers.
Over the past years, numerous investigations into incidents of corruption, embezzlement and graft by top UAW officials have moved from Regional officials into the heart of the union’s headquarters and uncomfortably close to the office of union President Gary Jones. Several past presidents, vice presidents and regional officials have been indicted or designated as “persons of interest” by the government for their roles either in the use of union funds to enrich themselves or in the receipt of bribes from management to ensure that concession deals are pushed through.
The investigations have so eroded morale and trust among autoworkers that the UAW was desperate and willing to try anything to restore even a small portion of confidence in their leadership, including resorting to a strike — albeit one that was heavily stage-managed.
In many respects, the strike, as organized, was little more than theater. The UAW gave GM ample time to build up a stock of vehicles and other necessary products to help them weather the work stoppage. By the time the action began, GM had a solid supply that could last them 87 days. In other words, even a strike lasting two and a half months would not harm GM’s ability to sell vehicles with desired options, thus allowing them to continue to generate profits while not having to pay for the power needed to produce vehicles (be that the labor-power of the autoworkers or the electricity needed for the machines).
Moreover, it is abundantly clear now that the strike was designed to fail. This is not only because, as usual, it was governed by the “injunction politics” that have robbed workers of their ability to win battles against the exploiting classes for decades, but also because it was never meant to hurt the company or its shareholders (the UAW being a major one). The demands of the workers were never seriously considered to be part of the agenda, only a propaganda tool to keep them “on the line.”
And then there was the mysterious meeting between GM CEO Mary Barra and her top staffers, on one side, and UAW President Gary Jones and Vice President Terry Dittes a few days before the tentative contract was announced. Little has been said or confirmed about this meeting, but what has been leaked centers around two words that no worker wants to hear: Taft-Hartley. If the rumors are true, the meeting was to inform the UAW that if a deal was not reached soon, then President Trump would have invoked the Taft-Hartley “slave-labor” act and ordered autoworkers back to the plants, deal or no deal.
The Problem with Unions
Even though unions represent only 6.3 percent of all workers outside of government jobs, they continue to be seen as the only effective means of fighting for the interests of the class in the workplace. This is understandable, from an historical perspective, but nevertheless a core problem for workers today.
Historically, unions have been seen as a primary means for workers to organize and defend themselves from the daily attacks by the exploiting classes. From the first craft unions of the 19th century to the industrial and amalgamated unions of the 20th and 21st, unions are still seen as the only viable means of securing and ensuring job security and a better standard of living — even if, in reality, none of these are actually achieved.
The enactment of laws like the National Labor Relations Act fundamentally changed the character of unions. No longer were they, or could they be, an organized expression of the demands and desires of workers themselves. Capitalist “legalization,” with its labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulations that demanded a mirror within the unions, transformed them into a collective mediator and negotiator of the price of a worker’s ability to carry out labor. Thus, instead of its main mission being to defend what workers have won in the past, its role is now to create an “equitable” agreement with the exploiters on their terms. “Stability” and “fairness” — and, most of all, preserving capitalist “competitiveness” — is the order of the day. The workers be damned.
In addition, the legalization process took workers themselves out of the very functioning and leadership of unions, with positions above the local level increasingly (and now consistently) being filled mainly by elements from the exploiting classes: lawyers, “labor relations” experts, professional statisticians and consultants. Occasionally, they include a few workers who once worked for a few months on the floor, mostly for color and cover. Is it any wonder that the staff workers at any large “international” union headquarters are often subjected to the most disgusting union-busting methods?
This transformation, which actually began more than a century ago (the first targets being the railroad unions), initiated the process of integrating unions into the capitalist system as the aforementioned collective mediators of the price of labor-power. That transformation also opened the floodgates, accelerating and intensifying the flow of the exploiters’ ideology into the working class.
The dominance among unionized workers of nationalism, sectoralism and chauvinism, as well as the intensifying of the ideology that tells workers they are “dummies” and incapable of running things for themselves, is specifically designed to maintain the class-based divisions that keep all workers in a position of precarity, fear and subordination.
An excellent example of this is the reaction of the UAW and many autoworkers to the wildcat strikes by Mexican workers in the maquiladoras against the Big Three. Last February, when tens of thousands of autoworkers struck in Matamoros against the low wages and horrific working conditions in the factories — two things that autoworkers in the U.S. and Canada have complained about since the beginning of outsourcing — the response of the UAW was to … hold flag-waving nationalist rallies and call for a boycott of products made in Mexico! At a time when cross-border solidarity between U.S. and Mexican workers, fighting for the same demand against the same companies, could have hobbled the Big Three and weakened them in advance of contract negotiations here, the UAW strengthened the hand of the bosses by keeping workers divided along national lines and preventing real unity.
The view of the unions that gains can only be fought for when the companies are profitable does nothing but shackle the well-being and interests of workers to that of their exploiters. Even worse, it keeps workers divided against themselves, even within a single industry. The needs of the working class are subordinated not only to one sector of the capitalists, but even to a sub-sector, where groveling is the only accepted form of survival.
[CONTINUED IN NEXT ISSUE]
Government Shutdown an Attack on All Workers
SINCE THE BEGINNING of the latest U.S. government shutdown on Dec. 22, about 800,000 federal employees and agents of the state have been affected, with civilian workers being furloughed and state agents forced to continue working without pay.
In addition, over 4 million government contract workers have also been idled in this current conflict.
At the time of this reporting, there appears to be very little chance of this shutdown ending any time soon. Both Congressional Democrats and the Donald Trump White House have dug in their heels, with each side, surprisingly, refusing to capitulate.
The ostensible reason for this conflict is Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in the federal budget devoted to building a wall (fence, barrier, whatever the term is today) along the U.S.-Mexico border. Congressional Democrats want the government to be reopened before any negotiation on a border wall is begun.
However, it now appears that the wall is more of a pretext. As the days have dragged into weeks, both the Republicans and the Democrats, and those surrounding them, have seized the opportunities presented by the mass layoffs and agency closures to implement the policies of the pirates and privateers of the exploiting classes that pay their ticket to power.
Take, for example, the furloughed civilian workers. Neither side really appears to want to send federal employees back to work with any urgency, and both parties are certainly willing to let these 380,000 workers twist in the wind until their game of procedure over the border wall finally ends. (We call it a procedure game because the Democrats will fund Tump’s border wall; the fight is simply over whether it is done now or done after some more negotiations.)
Then there are the workers under contract with federal government agencies. These workers often make much less and receive fewer benefits than their non-contracted counterparts in the same jobs. It remains to be seen if these workers will be brought back after the shutdown ends, as well as whether they will receive back pay for the time they were idled.
As for the agents of the capitalist state, they are in a different situation. The ongoing government shutdown has provided the exploiters with an opportunity to once again “perfect” its protective bodies. In effect, the practice of compelling individual state agents to continue working without pay has become a kind of loyalty test — loyalty to Trump and loyalty to the ruling classes as a whole. And it has been effective, since it has already exposed a weakness in the state: the Transportation Security Administration.
The sick-outs, the mass quitting, the generally rebellious attitudes on the job — all of these have demonstrated to the owning and managing classes that the TSA is in dire need of “perfection” once this shutdown is over. The agency played a key transitional role in the wake of 9/11, but there is now a need to “professionalize” it, by clearing out those rebellious and “unreliable” individuals and replacing them with more loyal elements, like soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines coming back from Syria and Afghanistan.
And then there is the wall itself. The wall is no more meant to “protect American jobs” than it is to stop unauthorized immigration. On the contrary, it is designed to be a weapon against all workers. As we wrote last issue, such “hard” stances on immigration are designed to keep immigrant workers at a regulated level to maintain not only current production levels, but also to use as a cudgel against non-immigrant workers to keep wages low and the class divided.
Yes, the shutdown is an attack on all workers: immigrant and non-immigrant, organized and unorganized, employed and contracted, and ultimately affecting every section of the class. But the solution is not the ending of the shutdown, which means a return to the status quo. Only mass self-organization on a revolutionary basis can defeat the attacks, which means the defeat of the capitalist system itself.
On the Oshawa Sit-Down Strikes
PLANT AND FACTORY closures can be one of the sharpest forms of class warfare. They not only affect the workers employed there, but also thousands more who work at businesses, both directly and indirectly connected. One needs only to look at the economic devastation of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s to see how working-class communities are devastated by capitalism’s drive for profits.
It is therefore no surprise that, in response to hearing that their GM assembly plant was going to close by the end of the year, autoworkers in Oshawa, Ontario, staged two short sit-down strikes. As we go to press, however, the small factory occupations have ended — thanks primarily to the officials of the Unifor union.
The plant’s truck assembly line shut down on the afternoon of Jan. 8, immediately after GM bosses announced that, after discussions with Unifor officials, they were going to go ahead with their plans to move the jobs overseas. The spontaneous sit-down idled the entire night shift and continued until the next morning, when union officials arrived and pressured the workers into giving up on their own actions and relying on the union’s public-relations “corporate campaign.”
This was not the first time that the Oshawa GM workers broke with the union and turned toward class-struggle methods to fight the plant closing. When GM first announced its intent to close the facility and four others in the U.S. last November, workers staged a one-day wildcat strike that shut down the plant.
Many of those involved in the spontaneous workplace actions have expressed their view that a proper fight against GM requires Canadian, U.S. and Mexican workers acting together across borders. However, the response from Unifor, like its American equivalent, the United Auto Workers, has been a seemingly relentless wave of racism and national chauvinism, especially against workers in Mexico.
At events, union officials and backward workers have worn sombreros and talked in caricatured accents while appealing to “patriotic consumers” and parroting their masters by demanding “punitive tariffs.” In this age of capitalist decline, the unions are a major way that nationalism, chauvinism and racism — that hatred and fear of one’s fellow workers — are made “normal” within our class.
By feeding the Oshawa workers a steady diet of national-chauvinist poison, the Unifor union has effectively disarmed them at a time when cross-border workers’ unity and action is needed to break the cycle of pitting Canadian, American and Mexican workers against each other. By pressuring the workers to end their wildcat actions, the union has betrayed their fight for a decent standard of living.
It will take workers’ self-organization and action, on the basis of their own organizations of struggle, and fighting against both the bosses and business unions, to not only win back past gains, but move forward to workers’ emancipation.
Exploiting Classes Use Riot Police, Tear Gas to Disperse, Terrorize Refugees
FOR MONTHS, the approach of thousands of Central American refugees (the so-called “Migrant Caravan”) has been a specter for politicians on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, with the reality of the situation lost behind grandstanding and pandering. But with the recent clash between refugees and U.S. forces at the Port of San Ysidro, the exploiting classes on both sides of the frontier are joining together to attack the refugees, a large section of whom are women and children seeking peace and the freedom to live without fear of being murdered at any moment.
The eventual skirmish that took place on November 25 began as a peaceful march of nearly 5,000 to the Mexican side of the border. Thousands of mostly women and children began assembling at the Tijuana sports stadium where the local government of Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum have chosen to warehouse the asylum seekers. They walked toward the Mexican side of the Port of San Ysidro, carrying handmade U.S. and Honduran flags, as well as repeatedly chanting, “We are not criminals! We are international workers.” Moving closer to the border, the protest swept past a line of riot police to get up to Mexico’s side of the line.
It is here that reports from the capitalist media say that small groups of protesters spread out on both sides of the port entry. Most groups did nothing more than come up to the border fence and yell or hang banners on it. But one of those small gatherings attempted to pass through a hole in the barbed wire and fencing placed by the Mexican government on the border. In response, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents fired flash-bang grenades and tear gas — a chemical weapon banned in warfare since 1993 — across the frontier into Mexico to forcibly disperse the protesters, at least 90 percent of whom were women and children that were peaceful, and stayed away from the fences and walls.
In the aftermath of the skirmish along the border, the propaganda machines in both the U.S. and Mexico went into overdrive. The intent was to tar the refugees as dishonest, dangerous, violent and even parasitic, with the goal of building up “public opinion” against their legitimate claims of asylum. The media dutifully lined up, playing up incidents of refugees impotently throwing rocks at CBP agents (incidents that, according to the CBP Commissioner, resulted in no injuries and only involved four agents) and echoing the White House’s lies about “lawlessness” and “tremendous violence.” News outlets in both countries repeated the lie-by-implication told by Mexico’s Interior Ministry that hundreds of refugees were being deported because they sought to “illegally” and “violently” cross the border — even though only 42 were arrested for attempting to enter the U.S. and none of them actually succeeded in crossing.
Nevertheless, the “provocation” (as Mexican authorities called it on Sunday, but buried on Monday) along the border allowed the exploiting classes, especially Trump’s White House, to effectively make the thousands of refugees into criminals. It also allowed Washington to successfully ignore long-standing U.S. law regarding the right of refugees to residency in the country while awaiting the processing of their asylum applications. It also allowed Mexican officials to continue to deny the refugees basic assistance and services.
The Facts Hidden by Propaganda
Since October, the so-called “Migrant Caravan” has been a favorite punching bag of propagandists and politicians alike. From the moment that the first 160 refugees gathered together in Honduras, the group was declared a serious threat by nearly every government in continental North America. At nearly every stop, the caravan was met by riot police or soldiers (or both), participants were removed or arrested, often for no cause, and regularly denied basics services, such as places to sleep or food to eat — all because virtually every official and news outlet along the path declared the people in the caravan to be “dangerous.”
But who was in this caravan? Contrary to the lies of the Trump White House, these were not “criminals and unknown middle easterners.” Quite the contrary. Most of those in the caravan were women and children fleeing gang violence and the epidemic of femicide, the murder of women for misogynistic reasons and in the name of machismo.
Since 1990, thousands of women have been killed by men for such things as talking to another man, refusing the advances of a man, challenging male-dominated authority, and so on. These murders are often accompanied by incidents of rape, assault, mutilation and torture, but tens of thousands more women have been victims of these crimes and have lived to tell their stories. But as many of these women will attest, there are few, if any, political, religious or media institutions in Honduras interested in listening to or doing anything about this wave of misogynistic brutality.
The most well-known incident of femicide in Honduras was the 2014 murder of María José Alvarado, who had recently won Miss Honduras. She and her sister, Sofía Trinidad, were brutally murdered by the sister’s boyfriend, Plutarco Ruiz, after he became jealous of her attending a party where other men were present. He shot Sofía after an argument, then turned his gun on the fleeing María, who was shot 12 times in the back. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30-40 years. From reports in local and international media, the only thing that surprised Hondurans about this case was the fact that Ruiz was tried and convicted; reports of femicide are usually not even investigated.
The situation for women only got worse after the reactionary coup d’état in 2009, which restored the conservative wing of capitalism to power. Incidents of femicide spiked; by 2013, an average of 53 women were being killed a month. By 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, the average was 32.4 killings a month, with 30.1 percent of all murders being women between the ages of 15 and 40. It was in the wake of the coup that the first caravans of refugees were organized in 2010. As femicide has grown in the region, spilling over into neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, so have the size and scope of the caravans going north.
This is why we have insisted throughout this article to refer to those fleeing from the region to the U.S. as refugees and not simply migrants. They are mostly women and children fleeing the reactionary and misogynistic violence that has become rampant in that region. As well, most of the men in the refugee caravan are also fleeing from the gangs, looking for opportunities to engage in honest productive labor.
Refugees, Immigrants and Capitalism
However, it is not for nothing that the different exploiting classes along the path of the caravan have relentlessly attacked these refugees. Even if Washington had not made the demands it did or taken the steps to financially punish its client states south of the Rio Grande (e.g., threatening to further slash economic aid, which was already cut by 40 percent when Trump came into office), the ruling classes of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras would have taken it upon themselves to attack and arrest the refugees.
The exploiters of all four countries try to minimize and rationalize the effects of femicide and the gangs on the working class. Thus, when thousands of refugees gather together to escape these conditions, it not only exposes their propaganda as a lie, but also presents a core challenge in a society where the capitalists and their managers use misogyny as a tool to maintain social order. U.S. capitalism also benefits from this misogyny, on two levels: first, by keeping large sections of women from entering the labor force, and, second, by using the threat of deportation back to those countries to keep working women who do make it in the worst conditions.
In our central document, we point out that the exploiting classes take a dual approach toward immigration to keep workers under control: “on the one hand, isolating and marginalizing immigrant workers in their jobs and communities as much as possible; on the other hand, using a strict immigration control regime to make sure there are just enough foreign-born workers to continue production at needed levels.” Again, contrary to the propaganda, the ruling classes don’t oppose immigration — including so-called “illegal” immigration. Fearmongering and repression are key elements of capitalism’s “strict immigration control regime,” designed to keep both native and immigrant workers divided from each others and subject to the whims of the exploiters.
Moreover, there is no liberal or social-democratic “path to citizenship” that will affect this approach, as it is integral to capitalism’s production system. Indeed, for all their talk about it, the liberals and leftists of the Democratic Party have only aided and abetted the continued functioning of this system — this includes the Obama White House giving tacit approval to the 2009 coup in Honduras. Senator Bernie Sanders, the social-democratic darling of the Left, limits his criticism to only the more egregious specifics of Trump’s immigration policy and says nothing about the overall control regime or the effect it has on workers of all backgrounds.
It will take the unity and self-organization of workers of all nationalities, guided by its own communist program, to break apart the rule of the capitalists and their managers, and put an end to the superexploitation of immigrant workers. It is this fight to which we commit ourselves fully.