The Awesome Power of the American Working Class

Power: political The capacity to influence and control the behavior of other people; physics Force plus velocity.

“. . . being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” snarled Clint Eastwood in the 1971 movie classicDirty Harry. This famous quote illustrates an important point about power. A .44 Magnum handgun is a powerful weapon. It is always a powerful weapon, even if it is unloaded and sitting on the kitchen table.

The slightest threat of its use will influence the behavior of others. If you had a .44 Magnum pointed at you, or even if you just glimpsed it sitting on your neighbor’s kitchen table, your behavior would be influenced big time!

Contrary to what we have always been told by the bosses, their government and press, as well as by many liberal and conservative commentators, the American working class and their unions are not weak and irrelevant. In fact, they are powerful, as full of power as a 9.5 earthquake. That workers still believe this weakness fiction is the principle obstacle standing in the way of their liberation from poverty and repression.

There are five indicators and measurements of the awesome power of the American working class.

  1. The vast wealth of the world being mostly produced by the labor of workers.
  2. Class solidarity
  3. Numbers
  4. The US economy being the largest in the world
  5. The rising panic of the American ruling class

The Producers of Wealth

Every worker in the world who has a job for a business is producing wealth for a boss, and every American worker who has a job for a business is also producing wealth for a boss. Bosses aren’t stupid. They will only pay workers for their labor if they know that they can siphon off some excess value from that labor and transform it into private wealth. The less they pay the worker, the more wealth they accumulate.

This wealth is stolen from workers by legal means, because the bosses surreptitiously hire the lawmakers who make the laws, and the cops who enforce the laws. This has been true since the foundation of capitalism several centuries ago.

Much has been made lately of how American workers don’t manufacture widgets anymore as they did in the 1930s, and are therefore weak, helpless, and hopeless. This view overlooks the fact that every single job, public or private, produces wealth, which is the basis of social power – the ability to get others to do what you want them to do. Only working class folks can perform these jobs on any grand scale. The bosses and their managers cannot perform this work or create the wealth.

Workers’ labor power is demonstrated in two ways. The first is the veto. This is called a labor strike.

Only workers can withhold their labor power and refuse to create wealth. Simply walking off the job and forming a picket line – or threatening to do so – is a frightening prospect for bosses, because it means a decline in their ability to accumulate wealth and power. Striking workers can be spied on, fined, beaten, shot at and arrested, but they cannot be forced to produce wealth for the capitalist class. This act has to be voluntary, because only voluntary labor can generate increased production, high-quality products and services, and maximum profits. Bosses need workers. They even need their good will and voluntary labor.

The second way that workers’ labor power is revealed is in their capacity to illegally expropriate the entire world’s wealth, transferring it from private hands to collective hands. This is called socialist revolution. Every revolution is illegal, doncha know, until it is declared legal by the new ruling class.

Instead of walking off the job, workers everywhere can choose to stay on the jobs that they know so well, and form committees at every level that will direct how wealth is produced and for what purposes. Supporting these massive job actions will be a proletarian transformation of laws, government, education, art and all institutions that currently support and justify the private accumulation of global wealth and power. This transformation will include abolishment of all divisions of the working class, including first and foremost, national divisions.

This working class ability to nationalize all wealth is the Freddy Krueger of the bosses’ nightmares on Elm Street, USA.

Class Solidarity

American workers – and workers everywhere – who serve coffee, operate railroads, teach students, make cars, dig for coal, and flip burgers all share one crucial factor, namely the daily struggle to pay for the basics of life in an increasingly hostile capitalist environment. This shared condition can be summed up in one term – common class interests. It is an easy thing for working people to relate to each other as brothers and sisters, and equally easy to see the rich selfish bosses as the class enemy.

Working class identity inspires proletarian solidarity, a very powerful weapon against the bosses. One day, when the workers in one fast-food restaurant in Iowa are mistreated for example, the workers in all fast-food restaurants in the US and the world will quickly find out, will feel natural sympathy, and will throw up legal or illegal picket lines in front of their work places. Other workers who supply food and machinery to all fast-food restaurants in the world and who would buy and eat fast food will refuse to cross the union picket lines. Massive proletarian solidarity will rapidly bring the entire fast-food industry to a grinding halt – until just demands are met.

Working class solidarity, not being limited to one workplace, one city, one industry, one country, or one hemisphere, represents raw power of the most awesome kind.

The Numbers

The vast majority of people in the modern world have jobs that they depend on for their livelihood. They are not rich, do not in any way represent the bosses and have no special stake in the preservation of zombie capitalism. We’re talking billions here.

In the United States alone, approximately 154 million Americans were employed in 2012. There simply aren’t enough armed cops to make that many people toe the line and follow all the capitalist laws. Even the American military is mostly composed of sons and daughters of working class people. The simple fact is that when 154 million Americans decide that the private ownership of wealth is immoral and illegal, it becomes illegal overnight.

This magnitude of numbers represents majority rule – true democracy – which is the scariest thing imaginable to the ruling rich, because it means their disappearance as a class. The numbers alone are a loaded .44 Magnum in the feverish imaginations of the oligarchy, a constant reminder of the billionaires’ and millionaires’ tenuous hold on power.

The US economy is the largest economy in the world

The Unites States is by far the world’s largest and most powerful economy. The United States’ nominal Gross Domestic Product was estimated to be $16.62 trillion in 2012, approximately a quarter of nominal global GDP.* It’s a good bet that whatever happens to US capitalism will continue to heavily influence developments in the rest of the world’s capitalist economies.

It also follows that the workers who produce this fantastic wealth carry an enormous weight on the world stage. Labor fights in American workplaces will spread like prairie grassfires to other continents, igniting rebellions in Paris restaurants, Bangladeshi shirt factories, and Zambian railroads.

American workers will be influenced and inspired by revolts of students, artists, artisans, and others, as well as by massive uprisings in other countries. However, in the end, it is only the mobilization of the powerful American working class that can shut off the spigot of wealth and power that fund the repressive apparatus of the US rulers. The mobilization of the American working class is the sine qua non for the complete global transformation from capitalism to socialism. (For a rational definition of socialism as well as other political terms, see the author’s Speakout piece “Redefining political terms for a revolutionary age.”)

The Panicky Rulers

The ruling oligarchy has caught sight of the .44 Magnum on the table and they are freaking out. They’ve even gone so far as to consider non-whites and women for the highest offices, just to try to keep the proletariat quiet and buy some time.

The Obama regime, the top representative of the liberal wing of the ruling class, knows that it is in trouble and has dedicated itself to circling the wagons: Super secretiveness with the highest level of domestic and foreign surveillance since World War 2, implementation of a draconian offensive against undocumented workers, open bragging about assassinations, kidnappings, and invasions whenever and wherever US corporate “interests” dictate and a constant stream of sugary promises and platitudes characterize this capitalist leadership.

The Republicans, top reps for the conservative wing of the oligarchy, clearly see the writing on the wall, and are hysterically trying to maintain the rightward drive and not retreat an inch toward the working class, not even the half inch that the Affordable-for-Some Medical Insurance Act, a.k.a. Obamacare represents. They are clever enough to know that if they give the powerful working class even half an inch, angry and emboldened workers could likely take a country mile and more.

So Why is That .44 Magnum Still Sitting on the Kitchen Table?

The answer is that workers everywhere are hobbled by a crisis of leadership. This is glaringly obvious in the US, with the vast majority of workers disorganized, while the union mis-leadership proposes every scheme they can think of except organizing unions to fight the bosses. A real fight could jeopardize cushy jobs that might be lost to an emerging militant leadership ready to take on the boss.

On September 6, the head of the United Auto Workers announced that the union will begin cooperating with Volkswagen to create a German-style “works council” at the company’s Chattanooga, Tennessee assembly plant, where bosses and workers would presumably sit together over lunch and share their feelings. Can’t we all just get along?

These “works councils” were created by the German government after World War I and again after World War II in order to stop the revolutionary-minded workers from independently organizing. They are still used by the bosses to bamboozle workers into taking responsibility for the bosses’ profits.

All sweet nothings so far, since none of the many auto assembly plants in the South owned by foreign manufacturers has been organized by the UAW or any other union.

At the September 8-11 AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, union officials overwhelmingly voted to support the inclusion of non-union liberal organizations like the NAACP and the Sierra Club into the AFL-CIO. The purpose of increasing the AFL-CIO’s size is not aimed at strengthening unions, but rather at stopping the loss of the bureaucrats’ dues base and regaining some influence in capitalist politics, above all with the Democratic Party.

As the September 30 issue of the Militant newspaper pointed out, “By promoting class collaboration with the bosses and election of ‘friendly’ capitalist politicians as the unions’ main purpose, the officialdom’s decades-long class-collaborationist course has hamstrung the union movement. It has been key to the union’s continued bleeding of membership and inability to recruit new forces, at a time of capitalist crisis when workers are starting to look for a way to fight back.”

In the last two decades, under the capitalists’ unrelenting assaults and the give-in/give-up strategies of the union tops, union membership has declined from 20.1 percent to its current level of 11.3 percent of the US workforce, a 97-year low.

Convention delegates also voted to lobby (pay off) Democrats in state legislatures for a higher minimum wage, beg Congress to raise taxes on the wealthy, plead with employers to improve safety conditions, and give lip-service support to almost-unions like “OUR Walmart” and fast-food workers’ “Fight for 15,” which also include students, social service organization staffers and others.

Painfully absent were calls for nation-wide street protests demanding a massive jobs program, a concentrated focus on organizing the unorganized into real fighting unions, or the formation of an international Labor Party, independent of capitalist parties, that would use union membership, union dues, and class solidarity to fight 24/7 for workers’ rights everywhere, including the rights to jobs, a living wage, food, clothing, shelter, education, and universal healthcare.

The Labor Union is an Awesome Weapon

Currently (as of 2012) US union membership stands at 14.4 million workers. A group of 14.4 million is less like an army and more like a force of Nature when organized for a fight. Anyone who maintains that the unions are weak is not paying attention. A grizzly bear hobbled by bureaucratic red tape is still an animal full of power, to be handled with caution and treated with respect.

Workers can no longer see the union as “them” or “it,” but rather as “us.” Unlike a private business, the very structure of the union lends itself to a democratic takeover by the membership. Regular membership meetings, open discussions, voting on officers, issues, and goals, the organization of duties, and the regular collection of dues make the labor union the premier weapon in any meaningful fightback.

The union is also a movement. Like capitalism itself, the union’s very nature requires that it continually expand, eventually to include everyone who has a job or wants a job. Every win for labor is a loss for capital, and every win for capital is a loss for working people. In the end, there can only be one winner.

Unionization will eventually include the remainder of the 154 million American workers, plus the 30-50 million or so unemployed workers, plus the 2.3 million military personnel who are victims of the poverty draft and deserve real jobs, plus the 2.3 million American prisoners, most of whom wouldn’t be incarcerated if they had jobs and access to adequate education and mental health care.

No Substitutes for Patience and the Hard, Risky Work of Union-Building

“Well, since the working class isn’t changing the world according to my personal timetable, therefore the working class is incapable of changing the world.”

Or, since this baby isn’t being born now after seven months of waiting, therefore

  1. it will never be born.
  2. it has to come out now.
  3. it will be born in twenty years/not in my lifetime.

It is too easy for many of us who really care about the world to fall into this negative and short-sighted perspective. After all, the union movement is at its lowest ebb in the memories of nearly everyone reading these lines.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind some advice from Vladimir I. Lenin, the famous Russian revolutionary, who once said that the most important virtue of a revolutionary is patience. Without the patience that derives from the certain knowledge of the power of unions and the working class, one is tempted to grasp at quick fixes and shortcuts, or head down blind alleys.

Impatience can lead to non-solutions such as ultra-leftist terror campaigns against capitalists, their property, and their governments, which only to serve to create martyrs and alienate working people while leaving the hard work of union building to others. This approach also creates openings for agents provocateurs to derail the fight. The only violence which is revolutionary is that which is carried out in self-defense. It is never a good thing when people are injured or killed.

On the other side of this impatience coin are the reformers who believe that the system can be “fixed.”

Many folks believe that a handful of dedicated individuals practicing non-violent civil disobedience can substitute themselves for the class and spark a revolution of the “masses” or the “ninety-nine percent.” Camping out in a park or chaining oneself to the White House gates will likely grab the headlines, but won’t do much to build unions or seriously challenge the oligarchy’s legal rights to accumulate wealth and power. In fact, getting arrested or violently dispersed – something the government is very good at doing as we saw with the Occupy Movement – discourages large all-inclusive demonstrations because working people have jobs they must keep and mortgages and rents they have to pay.

Reformism inevitably leads down the murky and cul-de-sac road of electoral politics. The goal here is to find “progressive” Democrats who will put a smiley face on this diseased system, help us take back “our” government, and return us to the fabled “good old days of American democracy.” Sadly for most workers, especially non-whites, women, and immigrants, the good old days never existed, but were maybe less horrible than they are today.

Some well-intentioned academics have lately proposed another reformist scenario of the gradual conversion of for-profit enterprises into local not-for-profit enterprises, which would eventually evolve into workers’ cooperatives and and universal democracy. Upon closer examination, we find four major inconsistencies to this vision of social change.

  1. It flies in the face of the long-running capitalist campaign to privatize everything in the world in order to feed the insatiable and desperate need for capitalism to increase profits and keep metastasizing, like the cancer that it is. Schools, prisons, surveillance, military, postal service, utilities, even fire departments are being outsourced and privatized, in the US and around the globe, with no slowdown or reversal in evidence.
  2. By leaving intact the legal right to private ownership of wealth, the best-case scenario would see all of the Monopoly tokens taken to the “G0” square and the game started over. Reportedly, current managers of workers’ co-ops earn “only” four times the wages of the average worker. Does this mean that they work four times harder or four times longer, or are four times more important? And like the failed experiment of Stalinist Yugoslavia, local worker-run businesses will need to compete against each other for markets and resources, thus perpetuating the dog-eat-dog culture that deforms us all, while leaving global problems unresolved.
  3. Are the unorganized, minimum-wage workers at Walmart going to save their pennies over the next decade and someday buy the company from the billionaires who currently own it? These capitalists don’t care about the selling price as much as they care about the power that ownership confers on them, the power to make others do what they want. They will never give up their outrageous privileges for mere money.
  4. Can we really believe that workers who are suffering mightily from the worsening crisis of capitalism are going to just go along with it for another 20 years, or thatzombie capitalism will even last that long before it destroys the world in a nuclear fireball?

Many will heed the call to mobilize and organize in the fight against capitalism and imperialism. All sectors of society who are ready to struggle will be welcomed by labor as allies and comrades. However, the fount of power will be none other than the organized working class.

This belief is not based on some mystical and dogmatic worship of the proletariat, but rather on the simple observation of fact. Only people with jobs, who are simultaneously hated, feared, and needed by the employer class, can challenge the rulers in any meaningful way for the ownership of wealth and the power to direct society.

Preparing the Ground

The working class in the United States and around the world has never been in a better position to organize and prepare itself to run the world.

  • The level of education and culture of the world’s toilers has never been higher.
  • Amongst workers, the social stigma of racism and sexism has never been greater. Any residual racism has to be disguised, while women have never been so adamant in demanding equal treatment.
  • Stalinism – the Graveyard of Revolutions – has been dealt a fatal blow on the world stage from which it will never recover.
  • Modern transportation and communication has made the world smaller and brought together workers from all corners of the globe, allowing them to increase numbers, share lessons, and coordinate efforts.

In the coming period, the work of organizing and leading the proletariat will take place on many fronts and through many related causes. However, the central tasks boil down to just three.

  1. The establishment of labor unions wherever they don’t exist, and by whatever means necessary.
  2. The strengthening of existing unions and union federations, and their transformation into democratic fighting instruments.
  3. The continued support of the revolutionary vanguard party. Largely composed of socialists with jobs who are establishing or strengthening unions, this political party is battle-tested in class combat, transmitting the revolutionary lessons of the past to the working class while at the same time taking its cues from the very real needs and concerns of the class itself.

From a careful study of history, we learn that depression-era fightbacks usually begin with an uptick in new hiring, as those recently-hired workers with the least to lose and the most to gain – youth, women, and minorities – are the first to organize. Revolutionaries will watch for these fights, especially labor fights, when they break out and join them in any way they can.