Low-wage workers strike, reach for a new way of life

From the July-August 2014 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

The recent wave of strikes at Walmart and fast food restaurants signals the discontent brewing among the growing number of low-wage U.S. workers. They give notice that the far-reaching restructuring of jobs that was accelerated by the Great Recession also has a subjective side of revolt.

A week of strikes and demonstrations at Walmarts across the country peaked with events in 20 cities on June 4 alone. Chants of “Respect! Now!” joined the official demands of “$25,000 per year and enough hours to support our families” and an end to retaliation against workers who strike or speak up. 

WOMEN WORKERS IN THE LEAD

Striking women were at the fore in several of the cities, countering Walmart’s publicity campaign that touts “Walmart moms” who “save money, live better,” in an attempt to disguise the giant multinational corporation’s rapacious exploitation and vicious repression of workers.

Jasmine Dixon, one of the 800,000 women employed by Walmart, led the rally in Commerce City, Colo. Using a wheelchair due to complications of her pregnancy, she explained that the company refused her request for light duty, still demanded heavy lifting and threatened to fire her.

The stories pregnant workers have told of their mistreatment forced Walmart to modify its policy this year, but that has made little difference in practice. More telling is the fact that they later fired Tiffany Beroid after she spoke up about how she was treated during her pregnancy.

Milwaukee fast food wks color

Fast food workers marching for a living wage and better working conditions in Milwaukee, Wisc., on May 15. Photo by Overpass Light Brigade https://www.flickr.com/photos/40969298@N05/14194526624/in/set-72157644271088280

The latest strikes follow nationally coordinated strikes on Black Friday the last two years, plus numerous strikes and actions at Walmart stores and warehouses since 2011. The fact that many were led by women reinforces the message of a study released in June by Demos, a liberal think tank, showing that women retail workers earn an average of $4 less per hour than male counterparts.

Compounding this is the fact that nearly one-third of women working part-time want to work full-time. Walmart, like many other companies, deliberately keeps many workers part-time to avoid paying full-time benefits, and additionally assigns many of them fewer hours than they want. Another trend is computerized “just in time” scheduling that calls in workers for shifts at the last minute, making it impossible to plan childcare and other life necessities. In the past year Walmart put in place a program to allow workers to work more hours, although the company pretends that it was not in response to protests.

It is no accident that this latest and most successful wave of worker actions at Walmart took off in the revolutionary period opened up by Arab Spring. That opening coincided with a labor strike by Georgia prisoners and followed by a few years the upsurge in activity by undocumented workers. Soon came Wisconsin’s 2011 labor uprising, with its explicit two-way road to the Egyptian Revolution, followed by the Occupy movement challenging the economic and political dominance of “the 1%.”

Not long after that—among many labor struggles, especially by low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women, people of color, and undocumented immigrants—came the outpouring of fast food workers, first in New York, then nationally in August and December 2013. In May 2014 over 1,000 protested at McDonald’s headquarters in the Chicago suburbs, following up a day of strikes and protests that hit 150 U.S. cities as well as fast food joints in over 30 countries. In the face of fast food’s preference to pay workers poverty wages, the main demands were a $15/hour wage and the right to form a union without retaliation.

CONTRADICTIONS WITHIN THE MOVEMENT

Those demands were not decided on by the workers but by public relations consultants working for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which started and funded the Fight for 15 campaign. How that campaign is run shows that the contradictions workers face come from within the “labor movement,” as well as from the companies they are fighting.

Rank-and-file workers’ unrest is real, and the SEIU seeks to harness it at the same time they mobilize workers. The union tries to present the appearance of a worker-led movement, but insider reports reveal a top-down campaign where the real decisions are made by SEIU leaders.[1]

It is not even clear that the SEIU is trying to unionize fast food workers, as opposed to using their energy to lobby for legislation like minimum wage increases, and to file lawsuits designed to weaken corporations’ huge legal advantages over unions. If they do try to unionize, fast food workers should be aware of a tactic popular with union bureaucrats, of which the SEIU is a past master: making agreements with management behind the backs of workers, including no-strike pledges and lobbying for pro-industry legislation in exchange for company promises of neutrality in organizing drives.

An eyewitness report from one of the Fight for 15 demonstrations captures the opposite attitudes of rank-and-file workers and bureaucrats. After a march to a McDonald’s in New York City, some of the workers tried to pour into the restaurant, only to be blocked by SEIU staff, who erected barriers. Union staff and police on one side of the barricade faced off against the workers.[2]

Given these opposite attitudes, neither community outreach nor hiring staff to organize new companies or industries can transform the character of unions controlled by the labor bureaucracy and open a new stage of workers’ self-organization. The way these unions tie themselves to the Democratic Party and channel worker energy into lobbying is only a corollary to this basic contradiction.

The fact that some labor unions like SEIU are reaching out to new unorganized sectors doesn’t make them revolutionary, but it is not purely a reaction to the ruling class onslaught that has decimated their numbers—only one in 15 private sector workers belong to unions, as against one in three in the 1950s.

WORKERS’ DRIVE FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION

The organizing is also a reflection of the fighting spirit and drive for self-organization brewing in the lower and deeper layers of the working class. We cannot know what forms of self-organization they will create, only that those cannot ultimately be contained within the existing union organizations. We do know that the idea of the new society is inherent in these class struggles, and that it needs to be made explicit as guiding force and a goal not left to the distant future. That idea is struggling to speak through all of the immediate freedom and class struggles, as against the bureaucracy’s efforts to write the script for workers to speak and act.

Both the fast food and Walmart campaigns (the latter was started by the United Food and Commercial Workers) include lobbying for a higher minimum wage. The Republican Party has moved so far to the right that—although two-thirds of the electorate, including half of Republican voters, want the minimum wage raised—an important segment of the Party wants to abolish it, including likely Presidential contenders Rand Paul and Marco Rubio as well as the Koch brothers. For President Obama, it’s an easy place to take a stand, knowing a bill that would displease his corporate friends could never get through the Republican-controlled House. Nevertheless, Democrats in Alaska and Rhode Island voted to block minimum wage hikes in their states.

Where the minimum has been raised, as in Seattle, it is after sustained agitation by workers. Even there, the loopholes include a “training wage” and exceptions for people with disabilities.

Student workers’ picket line blocks motorcyclist at University of Calif. Santa Cruz, Nov. 22, 2013. Student workers shut down campus then and again in April, and threatened a finals week strike in June until a settlement was reached including a 17% wage increase, equal pay and benefits for undocumented grad students, bathroom access for Transgender and Genderqueer students, lactation stations, and improved childcare and maternity benefits. Photo by  Alex Darocy indybay.org/newsitems/2013/11/22/18746645.php

Student workers’ picket line blocks motorcyclist at University of Calif. Santa Cruz, Nov. 22, 2013. Student workers shut down campus then and again in April, and threatened a finals week strike in June until a settlement was reached including a 17% wage increase, equal pay and benefits for undocumented grad students, bathroom access for Transgender and Genderqueer students, lactation stations, and improved childcare and maternity benefits. Photo by Alex Darocy indybay.org/newsitems/2013/11/22/18746645.php

Behind the push for a much higher minimum wage is not alone the fact that, adjusted for inflation, it has stayed below its levels of the 1960s and ’70s ever since Ronald Reagan became President. During the last three decades the whole economy has been restructured. Due to automation, union concessions, unionbusting and outsourcing, there has been a gradual shift from medium-wage to low-wage jobs, which turned into a tidal wave since the Great Recession hit in 2007. About 40% of employed adults make less than the equivalent of the 1968 minimum wage.

Growth in some high-wage jobs is deceptive. Workers attracted by North Dakota’s shale oil boom face a tremendous shortage of housing and healthcare, high rents and high prices for goods, scarce services, and the physical effects of hard and dangerous labor.

The official unemployment figure, while still high, excludes the historic number of people counted out of the labor force. The percentage of adults who have jobs is lower than it has been since 1984, when women were still entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

CAPITALISM ATTACKS WAGES AND HOURS

Part-time employment is rising, with over 7 million people involuntarily working part-time. The number of people unemployed for over six months has more than doubled since the recession began. Black unemployment, at 12.2%, is, as always, twice that of whites, while Black teen unemployment stands at 34.5% and Hispanic teen unemployment is 24.4%.

Consequently, median household income has sunk to $51,017 from $55,627 and the poverty rate has climbed, while the number of people receiving food stamps is up by 21 million since 2007.

But money does not fully measure the alienating, stressful conditions of working-class life. Most jobs can be taken away at any moment, with no certainty of finding a new one. Foreclosure and eviction are lingering threats. Millions who do reach retirement age keep working because they cannot afford to retire. Retirement funds that survived the 2008 crash are under attack by companies and governments.[3]

Many jobs colonize the time after work through cell phones, email, scheduling surprises or forced off-the-clock overtime. More time is devoured by bureaucracies like Medicaid, Veterans Affairs, courts and police. Parents worry about what will happen to kids in school in this trigger-happy land and after they graduate into a low-wage workforce expecting a worse life than their elders.

PRISONERS IN U.S. SLAVE LABOR EMPIRE

The prison system is an integral part of the mechanism of exploiting the working class. Conscious of their position in this system, Alabama prisoners held two labor strikes this year, with demands including wages for their labor. Before the state retaliated by throwing him into solitary, Melvin Ray, spokesperson for the Free Alabama Movement, said,

“We sleep with rats and roaches. We work for free and eat slop unfit for human consumption. We serve decades in prison solely to provide free labor and without any real prospect for parole….Alabama Department of Corrections is about free labor and the new slavery no one wants to talk about.”

In the midst of the 1930s Great Depression, masses of workers shook the world with their sitdown strikes, creating the CIO and scaring the ruling class into making concessions to prevent revolution. Since the next global economic crisis in the 1970s, the capitalists have been destroying unions and turning back the gains made by labor as well as by women, Blacks and Latinos.

The latest crisis starkly revealed what a state of decay this social system is in. This system based on accumulating surplus value, whose only source is labor, always drives toward extracting the maximum labor at the minimum costs, which today means both eliminating jobs and keeping down wages and benefits.

It is easy to see how that is spelled out in the transformation of employment. What is necessary is to hear the voices of revolt, the subjective side of the transformation. They are the voices of humanity’s quest for universality, including at its core the quest of workers to liberate themselves from alienation, and to release labor as self-activity. It is that self-activity, in creative revolt and in establishing new human relations, in organization and in thought, that can so totally transform society and the individual that a free world on new human foundations can arise.


Notes

1.  See “Fast Food Workers Betrayed by So-Called ‘Leaders,’” this issue; and “Fast Food Workers Strike: What Is and What Isn’t the Fight for Fifteen Campaign?” by Adam Weaver, http://machete408.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/fast-food-workers-strike-what-is-and-what-isnt-the-fight-for-fifteen-campaign/.

2.  “Chicago’s SEIU Arrest and the Story of a Stock Photo,” by JF, http://unityandstruggle.org/2014/05/10/chicagos-seiu-arrest-and-the-story-of-a-stock-photo/.

3.  See “Detroit Retirees Fight for Public Workers,” this issue.

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